Rupert Murdoch made two things quite clear yesterday: The Wall Street Journal‘s New York edition will launch in April (as long reported but never before publicly confirmed), and its target is the New York Times for reasons as much personal as business.
Murdoch’s made himself the Times’ nemesis, an avenger intent on bringing to it retribution for alleged sins against his sense of journalistic propriety and for slights against the people of its city.
The 78-year-old NewsCorp chief was blunt in comments to the Real Estate Board of New York:
“We believe that in its pursuit of journalism prizes and a national reputation, a certain other New York daily has essentially stopped covering the city the way it once did.
“In so doing, they have mistakenly overlooked the most fascinating city in the world — and left the interests and concerns of people like you far behind them. I promise you this: The Wall Street Journal will not make that mistake.”
Murdoch said the new section “will be full color — and it will be feisty,” declining to elaborate. Published reports have suggested it will be staffed by about 35 journalists and will to some degree be modeled after Seth Lipsky‘s New York Sun, which ceased publication in September 2008. Some of its key editorial hires are Sun alumni.
Today’s Journal reports that “current plans call for the New York section to be published six days a week and run as the second section of New York-area copies of the newspaper, according to people familiar with the project. The size of the section remains in flux but is expected to be eight to 16 pages a day, these people say. The articles will also run in the online editions.”
Ad Age reported last week that “there are plenty of reasons for the Times to be concerned. They start with Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman. The retailers will each advertise in the Journal’s New York section from the get-go, people close to the situation said.”
The folks Murdoch addressed yesterday — the city’s real estate establishment — are also prime candidates for Journal ads. Many of them like the Journal, have issues with the Times, and have for a while been enamored of the real estate section of the Journal’s sister publication, the NY Post. The Post’s real estate coverage, especially by Rich Calder, is arguably the best in town.
Murdoch said the Journal will be giving the Post “some competition on their home turf,” a productive and potentially lucrative synergy.
In this week’s wide-ranging New York magazine cover story on Murdoch, the chief concedes the obvious — that from a business standpoint NewsCorp’s $5-billion acquisition of the Wall Street Journal two years ago was the worst deal he ever did. “It never made any sense,” New York’s Gabriel Sherman quotes a former senior NewsCorp executive. “He had no justification for why he should buy it — he just wanted it.”
Now, Sherman said, “some see an Ahab-like obsession in Murdoch’s pursuit of the Times.”
During Murdoch’s campaign to buy the Journal, the Times editorialized that it hoped the Journal’s Bancroft family would “find a buyer who is a safer bet to protect the newspaper for its readers.”
Murdoch was infuriated by the editorial, which he saw as yet another example, as if more were needed, of the Times’ characteristic self-interest wrapped in a cloak of high-toned moralism.
The previous night, he had run into Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. at a party on Barry Diller’s yacht, and Sulzberger had assured him the piece wasn’t “faintly anti-Murdoch,” as Sarah Ellison reports in her upcoming book, “War at the Wall Street Journal.”
Murdoch wrote Sulzberger a personal note the next morning that concluded: “Let the battle begin!”
The next day, Sulzberger was sitting in his office at the Times Building with Richard Beattie, the chairman of law firm Simpson Thacher, who had advised the Dow Jones board during the Journal deal. Sulzberger pulled out Murdoch’s note.
“He was laughing at the time,” Beattie told me. “He thought it was cute.”
Sulzberger never replied to Murdoch’s letter. When I called Sulzberger to ask about the competition with the Journal, he dismissed my question out of hand: “Whatever,” he said.
Sulzberger is not the first media mogul to have underestimated Rupert Murdoch’s steely determination. At this point, he and his shareholders must realize they have little to laugh about.