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Is this the face of the future of news?

The Baltimore Sun

Rupert Murdoch's agreement last week to purchase Dow Jones & Co., publisher of the legendarily buttoned-down Wall Street Journal and Barron's, has served to multiply deep-seated concerns over his commitment to the high-quality business journalism for which the two publications are famous and over the future of newspaper journalism in America.

A man whose U.S. properties include the screamingly irreverent tabloid New York Post and the Fox News Channel -- which many journalists see as making a mockery of its own slogan, "fair and balanced" -- cannot suddenly take on a mantle of respectability when it comes to delivering real, unbiased news, media observers say.

At the same time, some wonder at the wisdom of his strategy of paying an over-the-top price for a stressed media company -- his $5 billion bid for Dow Jones is far higher than its recent market price -- and then expecting to make money on the deal in the long term.

And yet, despite some missteps, Murdoch has shown a canny ability in the past to produce victory through unlikely business gambles. The successful Fox News Channel is just one example.

Murdoch says he intends to create a synergistic union between the Dow Jones publications and a new Fox Business Channel set to debut in October. He plans to broaden the Journal's news horizons and transform it into the engine of a powerful and highly profitable multimedia vehicle without, he promises, compromising its journalistic standards.

If he succeeds, it will be a remarkable success story, but a potentially dangerous one in the eyes of some who question his commitment to quality journalism.

Newspapers across the country are searching for ways to compete profitably on the Internet and rescue their struggling enterprises from continuing declines in advertising and circulation revenues. If Murdoch finds the key, others are sure to follow.

The odds look long against him, but Murdoch has shown a relentless willingness to invest and innovate against the odds, a passion less visible elsewhere in the news business.

Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, sees "red flags" in Murdoch's promise to broaden the appeal of the Journal and increase its profitability.

"While at first blush these are positive things -- who can argue against more readers and more revenues? -- the most common way for media conglomerates to achieve these ends often come at the expense of the quality of the news," Carpini said. "In households that receive both, Fox News often has broader appeal than the Lehrer NewsHour, but I would not consider this a step forward for journalism."

Carpini noted that sales of The New York Post increased almost 8 percent in the six months ending in March this year, compared to only about 1 percent for The New York Times. "But is this a sign of the triumph of quality journalism?" he asked.

Profitability, Carpini said, is normally boosted not just by increasing sales but by lowering costs, and journalism usually suffers as a result.

"My guess is that if Murdoch succeeds in his promises, it will be at the expense of the journalistic quality of the Journal," Carpini said. "If I am wrong, I tip my hat to him."

John K. Hartman, a journalism professor at Central Michigan University, said Murdoch has "proven himself to be a visionary, and a ruthless one, several times over."

But, Hartman said shortly after the deal was announced, "This is a bad day for journalism, because Fox News Channel is Murdoch's example of his style of 'journalism,' which is biased to the conservative Republican cause -- not really journalism as we have known it."

In addition, Hartman said, the deal means "a very sad day for journalists at The Wall Street Journal, except those who dance to the Fox News Channel beat."

In five years, he said, the Journal will look "more like USA Today." It is unlikely, however, that Murdoch will force the Journal to emulate his less-exemplary newspapers, like the decidedly down-market London tabloid The Sun -- which features a topless lass every day on page 3 -- or the similarly scandal-obsessed British weekly News of the World.

Murdoch is certain to relish adding to the competitive pressures of his soon-to-be major rivals, The New York Times, The Financial Times and The Washington Post. He has already indicated he plans to expand the Journal's foreign and Washington coverage, and may well offer deep discounts on national advertising, which could set off a price war.

"If I was The New York Times, I would be nervous," Mike Hoyt, executive editor of The Columbia Journalism Review, wrote on the CJR Web site. But, he added, "For us readers, new competition at that level could be a very good thing."

The deal will marry the Journal, Barron's, Dow Jones Newswires and the Ottaway community papers to Murdoch's News Corp., which owns the Twentieth Century-Fox movie studio, Fox TV network, satellite networks in Asia and Europe, and dozens of newspapers in Australia and England, including the once-august London Times.

James Owers, who teaches in the Robinson College of Business Administration at Georgia State University, said that, with his dizzyingly high offer for Dow Jones, a proposition made public May 2, Murdoch signaled that he "wasn't willing to play with other bidders."

"His record of acquisitions is remarkable," Owers said. "We have to look really hard to find a few examples that were bad acquisitions. In this case, it's not a great buy in that he didn't get Dow Jones on the cheap, but he brings to bear on this his remarkable abilities in managing his media properties, especially in print. Synergy is the key. If anyone can pull it off, he can."

On the other hand, if owning Dow Jones doesn't work out for Murdoch, he will be able to turn around and sell it with little problem, given its stellar history, Owers said.

"I can't imagine that he's losing much sleep over this deal," said Owers, who specializes in mergers and acquisitions, particularly in the media industry. "It's just another day at the office. For him, it's a standard and relatively low-risk initiative."

Robert McChesney, president and founder of the media reform group Free Press and a communications professor at the University of Illinois, said the greatest value in Murdoch's takeover of Dow Jones is in the Journal's brand name.

"Owning The Wall Street Journal brings him tremendous political importance," McChesney said. "He's never had any trouble getting his phone calls returned before; now, he won't even hear the second ring."

Murdoch, he predicted, will continue to advance his political agenda.

"As fate has it, his political views almost always support his economic self-interest," McChesney said. "Murdoch is not necessarily the guy who should be given control over the marketplace of ideas. It's not a good idea for one person to have this much influence over the vital oxygen of a democracy."

Over the past 20 years or so, American journalism has seen an enormous amount of consolidation, retrenchment and downsizing. As a result, there are fewer professionals doing the sober business of daily journalism.

"What we as a society need is more reporters and more newsrooms, not less," McChesney said. "With so much consolidation, you're only a short step from Pravda. The purpose of a free press is to make democracy work, not to make sure the Murdoch and the Bancroft grandchildren never have to work another day in their lives."

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., said most people in the industry do not believe Murdoch's assurances that he will allow the Journal's editors to work independently of his influence. But Edmonds believes he will.

"I don't think you're going to win the hearts and minds of two million readers by running roughshod over the traditions and independence of the Journal," Edmonds said. "I don't think he'll do that."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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