By: Joe Strupp
So Rupert Murdoch is in line to buy Dow Jones & Co., and, of course, The Wall Street Journal. Some reports have the deal possibly coming as soon as next week.
It is not surprising that the Bancroft family, decades-long owners of what some consider the most-respected paper in the world, want to make sure their family business doesn?t become the financial version of the New York Post or The Sun of London. Numerous industry observers, as well as Dow Jones employees, have made clear their opposition to a Murdoch sale, claiming it would result in both staff cutbacks and potential meddling by Murdoch, who as The New York Times is reminding us this week, has a history of leading some editorial pages in his direction. The Times even noted that, despite an editorial independence arrangement with Murdoch’s Times of London, he has apparently directed that daily’s moves on some issues.
I have a simple answer to their dilemma: Don?t sell to Murdoch. If Dow Jones officials, and the Bancroft family, are so worried about what Murdoch might do to their company, keep it away from him. Just because he offers a whopping $5 billion, with a per-stock bid well above what the company was worth when it was first offered months ago, doesn?t mean the Bancrofts have to take it.
And if they are willing to accept the Australian news baron’s overpriced offer, they have little complaint or, frankly, little real say in how he will run the company. Sure, anyone who spends decades building up such a venerable news institution as Dow Jones wants to make sure it continues on in a respectable manner befitting generations of work, sweat and tears.
But, after all, this is business, as The Godfather’s Tom Hagen would say. And it is a bit arrogant to take a buyer’s wad of cash, but tell him he can?t run the company as he sees fit. Whatever you think of Murdoch, or his past business dealings, he has the right to run any of his companies his way, as long as laws aren’t broken or employees mistreated. Just ask George Steinbrenner.
Newspaper owners for years have had no qualms about running the editorial pages, or on occasion their news reports. Is the latter journalistically or ethically right? Perhaps not, and any paper that allows an owner, or anyone else, to dictate coverage for personal, political or monetary gain should be held accountable.
Still, anyone who thinks Murdoch won’t be able to run the Journal, or any of the Dow Jones properties, his way, even with an editorial independence provision, is dreaming. And that is the way it should be, whether the owner is Rupert Murdoch, Dean Singleton, the Sulzberger family, or some small town weekly paper owner.
I don?t envy the Bancrofts and I applaud their careful review of this sale. Their willingness to sell the company, which is obviously facing challenging economic times and a grim future — as all media companies today are — shows they do not want it to bleed down to mediocrity. Yes, their own interests are at stake and a $5 billion sale would keep them secure for generations to come. I am not na?ve enough to think this sale is purely for the longevity of a family’s heritage. It is also clearly for financial benefit.
If a deal can be structured to allow Bancroft family members to choose members of an oversight board or have some kind of involvement, similar to how the Chandler family had influenced control of the Tribune Company after selling TimesMirror, so be it. But, in the end, it will be Murdoch who runs the show,.
Putting in controls for what Murdoch can do with the Journal is like selling a landmark house and stipulating that it can never be painted a certain garish color or get covered in aluminum siding. If Murdoch buys this house, don?t be surprised if he replaces a few windows, knocks down couple of walls, and paints it a color the former owners will hate.