In the upper ranks of American newspaper editors, Eugene Roberts is a highly regarded figure: under his stewardship in the 1970s and ’80s, the Philadelphia Inquirer won seventeen Pulitzer Prizes in eighteen years. Last spring, while researching a piece about Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of the Wall Street Journal, a reporter for The Atlantic contacted Roberts and found him in a pessimistic frame of mind: “Murdoch says he wants to turn it into something more like the New York Times,” Roberts said, “but I suspect it will end up looking more like USA Today.”
I recently phoned Roberts and asked him if the Wall Street Journal had, in fact, emerged as a replica of Gannett’s USA Today. Roberts retreated from his earlier remark and made it clear, in his low-key manner, that he admires Murdoch’s Journal: “I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen so far,” he told me. “There is more foreign reporting. It’s more of a general-interest newspaper. On the whole they are doing a good job of pursuing political and national stories fairly and accurately.”
Indeed, Murdoch’s Journal is winning praise from many quarters. “I think it’s better,” says Walter Pincus of the Washington Post. “They’re printing more stories. Their coverage of Washington has expanded.” Says columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.: “I am reading the new Journal with great pleasure because business and economic news is now everybody’s news and because they continue to have some first-rate political reporting.” “The Journal is a much improved newspaper,” says Harold Evans, who clashed bitterly with Murdoch at the Times of London in 1981. “I think the way they’ve begun to cover politics and the extra space they’ve put into the paper–that’s all to the good. Let’s not underestimate the fact that this is a pretty massive investment that they are making.”
These comments come as something of a surprise: a great many soothsayers had predicted that Murdoch’s ownership would have regrettable, if not catastrophic, consequences for the newspaper. Murdoch stoked those fears: he joked with Time in June 2007, six months before he concluded his $5.6 billion acquisition of Dow Jones & Company, owner of the Journal, that he would put tabloid-style photos of half-naked women in its hallowed pages–provided those women had MBA degrees.
But the wrecking ball has not come to the Journal; sleaze has not invaded its pages; the most dire fears have not been realized. Murdoch has not extinguished quality writing at the paper; he has not transformed the China coverage to benefit his business interests in China; he has not terminated the paper’s superb coverage of art, photography, music, dance and theater; he has not murdered the “A-hed,” the quirky feature that has adorned Page 1 since 1941; and so on. Says Byron Calame, a deputy assistant managing editor of the Journal who went on to become public editor of the New York Times from 2005 to 2007: “I’m not aware of any corruption of the news standards.”