The news Friday that the U.S. Justice Department is preparing wide-ranging subpoenas in the News Corp. phone hacking case was first disclosed by The Wall Street Journal. The paper is owned by News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch considers it the jewel in his crown.
And although the Journal has not been directly linked to any journalistic misconduct, the scandal has raised the question of how it has fared under Murdoch's ownership.
Murdoch's Acquisition Brought Big Changes
From the moment Murdoch strode into the newsroom of the Journal three and a half years ago, he has cast an inescapable shadow.
"Oh, I think all of us at the time the deal was announced were anxious what it might mean," says Alan Murray, deputy manager editor at the Journal and executive editor of the paper's online operations.
"What [would] News Corp.'s control of The Wall Street Journal mean? Would it in any way affect the independence of the news department? Would we somehow be forced to carry some other corporate agenda news that News Corp. has?" Murray says. "But none of that's happened."
But there have been some real changes. The Journal's newsroom moved from the financial center next to ground zero, to News Corp.'s headquarters at Midtown Manhattan. Murdoch and two handpicked editors from his Times of London decided to go head-to-head with The New York Times. Now the Journal publishes new sections about New York City life and leisure and there has been an investment of many millions.
Sarah Ellison was a reporter at the Journal for a decade and wrote a book about the paper's $5 billion takeover by News Corp. She said the new top editor — Robert Thomson, a trusted Murdoch lieutenant — brought a different metabolism.
"He felt like you needed to be hungry, you needed to be breaking news and you needed to be in the trenches every day, aggressively pushing forward on whatever story it was you were chasing," Ellison says. "Now it's much more of a focus on breaking the story of the day."
There were gripping headlines, big photographs and shorter stories, all in an effort to draw in readers. The paper served up more politics and international news and less, in Ellison's opinion, of the paper's vaunted watchdog coverage of corporations and Wall Street. And there were also fewer of the elegant front page features beloved by writers and scorned by Murdoch.
But Murray says the Journal hasn't retreated from its enterprise reporting on corporations — pointing to coverage of BP after the Gulf oil spill and its recent series on corporate invasion of privacy online. And Murray says the paper's decision to broaden its franchise has appealed to readers.
"And when News Corp. came in, they made a conscious decision to say, 'Look — a lot of these papers are declining rapidly; they've become shadows of what they were in many of these urban markets. And yet there are people who still want to get a print newspaper delivered on their driveway every day and if we expand our general news coverage, we can be that paper,'" he says.
'Journal' May Have 'Over-Corrected'
Murdoch's acquisition has irritated some investors — the Journal is now valued at half of its purchase price — but circulation is up and the company says the paper has returned to profitability, although News Corp. does not break down the figures.
Back in 2007, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera was among those who actively endorsed the takeover, saying the media mogul's deep pockets would protect the paper.
But now, in light of the scandal, Nocera has written a mea culpa.
"The Journal was turned into a propaganda vehicle for its owner's conservative views. That's half the definition of Fox-ification," he wrote. "The other half is that Murdoch's media outlets must shill for his business interests. With the News of the World scandal, the Journal has now shown itself willing to do that, too."
Several former Journal staffers interviewed by NPR pointed to news articles that referred to the "assault on business" by the Obama White House. But other current staffers, who spoke on condition they were not named, say such thumbprints are far fewer now than at first.
Ellison says the new editors from the U.K. brought The Times of London's conservative take on the American media.
"But they were correcting for what they perceived as a liberal bias," Ellison says. "I think that's something of a dangerous mission, and I think there were times when they over-corrected for that, no question."
More tellingly, Ellison says, the Journal has been slow off the mark in covering the scandal involving the News Corp. tabloid News of the World. It's particularly notable because the Journal's publisher, Les Hinton, had to quit last week because he was the chief executive of News Corp.'s British newspaper group when the incidents are alleged to have occurred. He also gave testimony to Parliament that proved to be untrue but has denied knowing of any wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, in a blistering editorial, the Journal blamed the scandal on the failure of police to investigate and its journalistic competitors for over-hyping the story.
"We also trust that readers can see through the commercial and ideological motives of our competitor-critics," the paper wrote. "The Schadenfreude is so thick you can't cut it with a chainsaw. Especially redolent are lectures about journalistic standards from publications that give Julian Assange and WikiLeaks their moral imprimatur. They want their readers to believe, based on no evidence, that the tabloid excesses of one publication somehow tarnish thousands of other News Corp. journalists across the world."
Ellison says the paper has an opportunity
"What I hope is that The Wall Street Journal can show through its reporting in its news pages, that it really is still holding onto its DNA," she says. "That in a story about this — even when it's about their corporate parent — that they can really get to the bottom of it."
In recent days, the coverage has gotten appreciably more aggressive — including Friday's scoop.