Battle of the Barons!

The Wall Street Journal’s New York section is sparking a most excellent press war

Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thomson and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. met last week for the first time. They were at the Manhattan apartment of Sir Martin Sorrell, head of the big WPP advertising firm, and they were there for a dinner on the night of April 6. Sulzberger approached Thomson and introduced himself. The two spoke for a few minutes. They laughed a couple of times, chatted and “then sat down, as all the guests were seated for a small dinner to honor courageous journalists from two continents,” Thomson told The Observer.

And that’s all about that night that they seem to agree on.

An old-fashioned, honest-to-God press war is unfolding in New York, revitalizing the local media scene after months of torpor. On April 26, The Journal will begin its clearest attack on The Times ever, right in its own backyard.

The conversation between Thomson and Sulzberger was bound to be fraught. Only weeks earlier, Thomson sniped to New York magazine that The Times was vulnerable in part because Sulzberger was in charge. Then, on March 27, the front cover of the Weekend Journal section included a cropped image of the lower part of Arthur Sulzberger’s face, in a graphic that accompanied a story on how healthier women prefer feminine-looking men. The implication seemed clear enough. Sulzberger had a girly face! A gag, sure, but nonetheless a usual move by a Journal editor to bring a corporate fight into the paper’s news pages.

Thomson said the two men laughed about it at the Sorrell dinner. “We had a good giggle about it,” he said. “It wasn’t about masculinity. If you looked at that mosaic of masculinity, Arthur’s jaw was on the masculine end.”

He said Sulzberger Jr. understood that he was being portrayed as masculine and “there was immediate empathy when we were chuckling.” He referred to everyone’s interpretation that suggested otherwise as an “eccentric exegesis.”

The thing is, according to Sulzberger’s spokesman Bob Christie—who bolted The Journal for The Times only a few weeks ago—that is not how it happened. At all.

Christie’s account? While it is true that Sulzberger greeted Thomson and the two men exchanged pleasantries, Thomson left the conversation for a few minutes, before returning. Upon his return, he said that the image that looked like Sulzberger’s face in that graphic on the Weekend Journal front wasn’t his at all. Thomson, according to Christie, told the Times publisher he wasn’t even aware of the image until he read blog posts about it. When Sulzberger asked Thomson to run a clarification, the Journal editor declined and said he didn’t want to escalate the issue.

“We have moved on,” Christie said. “And we are focused on the high-quality journalism that we produce every day and that’s why we won three Pulitzers on Monday. The readers and employees of The Wall Street Journal deserve much better than this type of juvenile behavior from its editor in chief.”

And it’s likely to get more intense as The Journal approaches the launch of its New York section. In his first extensive interview on the subject, Thompson sought to dig further under Sulzberger’s skin. “My advice to New York Times readers is cancel your subscription, read it on the Web for free and buy The Journal,” Thomson said. “You’ll be impressed by how the coverage broadened out, even if you aren’t a businessperson. There’s a great opportunity for New Yorkers to sample The Times for free, and for less money than a Times subscription, you’ll get The Journal for six days.”

Thomson explains the rationale behind the new section. Maybe you haven’t noticed, he says, but The Journal, now 28 months into Rupert Murdoch’s ownership and nearly two years into Thomson’s editorship, has changed over the past couple of years.

He believes there are New Yorkers who aren’t aware of its “evolution” and that’s why they’re still there, on the subway, reading The Times. But now Murdoch and Thomson are going to provide those New Yorkers a daily section dedicated to local news, and an entirely new option for a broadsheet in the city. 

“Obviously, our ambition is that people will come in through New York and they’ll take a look at us, they’ll sample us and then they’ll discover how much we’ve broadened the national and international coverage,” he said.

Starting soon, The Journal will include a pull-out local report in all of its New York editions. There will be “12-ish” pages every day, and will run six days a week. The paper has already expanded its coverage of international events and politics. Now it will move the paper straight into The Times’ turf, covering local politics, news, sports, culture, gossip and real estate.

In Thomson’s estimation, there is no such thing as a “second read” anymore. You’ll eventually buy one paper only. “The New York Times is a difficult paper to read,” he said. “Navigation is not easy. So clearly, we have a much easier paper to read and to understand. We don’t have as many stories jumping from place to place. It’s an opportunity for people who have been frustrated by the very act of reading to read again. We have an accessibility that will make sense to people.”

By The Journal’s own projections, the prospects of turning a profit on the New York report in the next couple of years are remote. Despite the fact that people aren’t buying newspapers the way they used to, Thomson and Murdoch want you to buy their printed paper. It is a crazy-like-a-fox strategy, or it’s just plain crazy. Either way, it’s undeniably Murdoch, joyfully defying the odds.

The only audience Murdoch and Thomson crave are the people who read the paper. “We will be judged rightly and harshly by readers,” Thomson said. “That’s the only judgment that counts.”

Plans for the New York section go back to at least last summer, when The Journal drafted a plan to create a weekly culture section for New York.

That effort quickly grew. Dow Jones executives listened as Kelly Leach, then the vice president of business management at the paper, presented two plans, according to a source familiar with the discussion. The Journal could expand its Saturday paper, invest heavily in it and make a solid profit. Or the paper could build out a five-day-a-week New York section, which all projections indicated would lose money.

At that point, Les Hinton, a Murdoch confidante for decades and the publisher of The Journal, leaned back and asked, unfazed, ‘How much would it cost to run it six days a week?’” according to the source.

It wasn’t long after that meeting that the wheels were set in motion. Once again, Murdoch would spare no cost. According to Sarah Ellison’s book War at The Wall Street Journal (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), this is the man who lost $80 million on The Journal last year and spent $60 million moving the paper from its longtime home downtown to the News Corp. building on Sixth Avenue. The New York Post has reportedly lost tens of millions of dollars a year. A Dow Jones spokeswoman said that The Journal, in the fiscal year 2010, would be profitable, as would the Journal franchise.

Thomson said that the plan that was temporarily shelved, the Weekend section relaunch, will start this fall. “It will be quite grand and rather profitable,” he said.

Although the war will begin over New York stories in a few days, the skirmishes with The Times began long ago.

Thomson has gone on the record to attack time and again, complaining about The Times’ pretentiousness or about how the whole institution could go under because Arthur Sulzberger is in charge. Last year, he accused Times Executive Editor Bill Keller of tampering with an awards process.

The Times, uncharacteristically, has responded with a few jabs of its own. It poached arts reporter Kate Taylor, who had been working at The Journal for mere weeks on its New York section and who infuriated her old bosses. Bob Christie, the PR chief at The Journal, left a few weeks ago to join up at Sulzberger’s shop.

In addition, The Times last month kicked off an ad campaign that argued The Times had a greater market share of local women readers than The Journal. For months, The Times’ public posture has been that it’s not worried about the upcoming section.

Once the New York changes take effect, the business and finance paper of yore that will include a section that covers nightlife and gossip and local political and sports news. It will have stringers stationed throughout the tristate area covering suburban news.

Much of the Journal staff has no knowledge of the paper’s planned new section. It’s been so top secret that many staffers have told us that they’ll learn just as much about it as everyone else when it debuts on April 26.

The majority of people assigned to the section have been hired from outside the paper. Jacob Gershman, a familiar player in local political coverage, has been hired, but most of the three dozen other new reporters are not boldface names. The sports reporters come from the likes of the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Calkins newspaper chain.

“We have a body of expertise,” Thomson said. “We brought in the best journalists in the region to write about the region. Readers are smart. They will make informed decisions about the value of this section. I have absolutely no doubt they will see the value. We will present them a choice, and they’ll decide accordingly.”