Rupert Murdoch believes his Wall Street Journal can out-compete The New York Times on its own turf, and he's spending plenty of money to prove it. But in going after the Times in areas like politics and local news, is the Journal making itself vulnerable in its own wheelhouse?
That question was hard not to ask Friday after the Times scooped the Journal -- and everyone else -- on what just may be the biggest business story of the year so far: the Securities and Exchange Commission's fraud lawsuit against Goldman Sachs. Almost immediately after the SEC announced the suit late in the morning, the Times was ready with a 1,400-word takeout on its website. The Journal 's bare-bones account didn't appear until more than 20 minutes later.
The Times's infinitesimal turnaround time sparked instant speculation that the SEC gave the paper's reporters, Louise Story and Gretchen Morgenson, advance warning of its plans. Larry Ingrassia, the Times's business editor, won't confirm that. "We never talk about sources or how we get stories," he says. He hints, however, that a Dec. 23, 2009 article by the same reporters on Goldman's selling of mortgage investments it was betting its own money against had something to do with the scoop. "As a result of that story, people know what we're on top of it," he says.
It's only one story, of course, but it's all the excuse that's needed for another round of the journalism establishment's favorite parlor game: Is Murdoch ruining the Journal? As always, it depends on whom you ask. The Pulitzer Committee cast its vote earlier this week when it awarded a nice round zero prizes to the Journal, versus three for the Times and four for the Washington Post. The Journal has yet to win a Pulitzer since Murdoch took it over in December 2007.
But Murdoch has always made a show of publicly disdaining awards, which he feels exist to inflate journalists' egos rather than to serve readers. His currency is the scoop, and there the record is more mixed. Yes, the Times scooped the Journal on the Goldman-SEC news, and also on last week's news of merger talks between US Airways and United. But Robert Thomson, the Journal's managing editor, points out that his paper was first on some other major stories recently, notably the ties between a Goldman Sachs board member and the government's investigation of the hedge fund Galleon, and the Hewlett-Packard bribery probe.
Journal insiders are divided over whether and to what extent the paper's new emphasis on non-business news has eroded its core competency. "I know the anti-Murdoch narrative is that he's taking away from business to do all these other things, but I don't really see that," says one. "If you're doing a scorecard, the Journal's still ahead on scoops in the Wall Street banking area."
Another observer, a former longtime Journal editor, says the paper does lose to the Times more often than it used to, but he dates the change not to Murdoch's takeover but to the arrival on the scene of Andrew Ross Sorkin, the Times's ace mergers-and-acquisitions reporter. "It used to be assumed that if there was a story to be broken on M&A, the Journal had it," says the editor. "The beat got a lot more competitive once Andrew got on it."
Asked whether he thinks the Journal is a less formidable rival on the business front these days, Ingrassia, himself a Journal veteran, demurs: "There's a lot of great competition out there. The Journal still does a lot of great work."
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