A nostalgic look back at the history of the Dow Jones Corp. was included in the Wall Street Journal's impressive coverage of its own pending sale to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Wednesday morning. Credit for the current quality of writing and reporting in the Journal is largely attributed to the legendary editor Barney Kilgore, who ruled the paper for 25 years in the '40s, '50s and '60s. Kilgore apparently had a decent sense of humor. He "joked that he had written a headline that could top almost any story the paper published: 'Giant Firm on the Rocks.'"
Too bad the Journal's current editors didn't trust their own instincts and use that very headline for the current package of stories detailing how the Journal came to its fateful crossroads. While there has been much gnashing of teeth, in the Journal and elsewhere, over whether the Murdoch taint augurs a "dark day for journalism," the Journal's own reporting makes it clear that if it weren't for a series of bungled business decisions amid an increasingly harsh operating environment, Dow Jones would not have been vulnerable to the forays of an Australian buccaneer. Despite the Journal's success in attracting paid subscribers to its online edition, Dow Jones allowed Bloomberg to eat its lunch in the business of providing financial news via computers, and miserably failed to expand its brand into television. Its share price has stagnated and profits are slim.
Dow Jones hasn't been making much money lately, and no matter how much one wants to wail about the Journal's "reputation" for reporting quality, no group of editors or reporters on this planet knows better what happens to a large corporation when profits go south. Indeed, once you get past the specifically Murdoch-related drama in the Journal's lead story on Wednesday, the nitty-gritty facts of how it all went down -- the details of the maneuvering among family trusts, the squabbling over compensation and the politics of who had shareholder voting rights and who didn't -- sound exactly like the details of any other contested merger or acquisition. Such stuff is the red meat of the Wall Street Journal's regular fare. Business as usual.
Now the watching and waiting begin. In the months and years to come, a myriad of eagle eyes will pore over every column inch of the Journal, divining portents for the future. Every headline will be parsed for signs of Murdoch-induced sensationalism or political self-interest.
A dark day for journalism? Maybe. But part of what got the Wall Street Journal into its current mess is that there are more sources for solid financial news than ever before. And as the Journal would be quick to remind us, a true decline in the quality of its business reporting undoubtedly creates the opportunity for a better-managed competitor to flourish.
But this isn't just a chance for the Financial Times and Bloomberg to shine more brightly. As consumers of information, those of us who care about economic affairs live in a golden age unprecedented in the history of journalism. And I don't just mean we have more access to news per se. We also benefit from a near-infinite number of online outlets devoting themselves to analyzing and explaining and critiquing every act of financial journalism committed in practical real-time all over the world. If the Journal starts to slide, we will know.
To some critics, the explosion of commentary is a cacophony that undermines authority and threatens to submerge us all in anarchic seas where "truth" becomes ever more obscured. I prefer to see it as a joyous hubbub that insulates us all from dependence on any one source for guidance or instruction. Look how the mighty have fallen, and rejoice. We don't need the mighty. Trust the masses.