Media Forum: Can the WSJ take on the FT?

Is Rupert Murdoch lining up an attack on the FT, Jennifer Whitehead asks.

Rupert Murdoch has got his hands on Dow Jones after the Bancroft family decided that the lure of a $5 billion sale was greater than the right to wear a T-shirt saying: "I told Murdoch where to stick his cash."

The sale gives Murdoch ownership of assets including Dow Jones Newswires, Dow Jones Indexes, the Far Eastern Economic Review, MarketWatch, Factiva and, of course, The Wall Street Journal, not to mention its website and its 900,000-odd paid subscriptions.

While the US media goes through the anguish of seeing a bastion of high journalistic standards become part of the same media family as the right-wing favourite Fox News, the sale of the WSJ is also causing waves in the UK, especially in relation to the Financial Times.

This is down to whatever plans Murdoch may have to boost the presence of the WSJ locally. Although the WSJ has quite a well- established European edition that launched in 1983, the paper's circulation and clout among press buyers is of little concern to the FT.

On top of that, the FT has just reported excellent results, leaving the chief executive of its parent company, Pearson, Dame Marjorie Scardino, in an ebullient mood. She declared the FT was a "worthy competitor" to the WSJ just before confirmation came through that Murdoch had succeeded in his bid.

And she had good reason, with profits up by 28 per cent at the newspaper division, and subscriptions rising by 12 per cent at and by 28 per cent at the FT.

Still, any media owner that competes in a sector where Murdoch has interests must fear the determination and resources of the mogul.

He is a fearsome entrepreneur, willing to step away from a deal if the price is not right, while at the same time relishing the chance to vanquish his rivals for the sake of victory as much as for profit.

But it seems he has a battle on his hands if he wants to make the WSJ a proper rival to the FT in the UK.

The FT has been investing heavily in the past few years, developing foreign editions as well as expanding the website.

John Ridding, the chief executive of the FT, says: "For years now, the FT and the WSJ have followed different paths. While we have built our global operation, the WSJ has focused more on the US."

And this investment seems to have paid off, with advertisers often running campaigns across more than one of the FT's international editions, and it is respected as a global entity that will make it hard for the WSJ to challenge.

"The WSJ will remain synonymous with America just by dint of its name. The FT is more generic, and will remain a more globally recognised brand," the managing partner of Media Planning Group, Marc Mendoza, says.

There is also the issue of another British paper that features some well-respected business coverage, should Murdoch decide to turn the WSJ into a major UK presence - News International's The Times.

"Murdoch has to tread carefully," Paul Thomas, MindShare's investment director, publishing, says. "I remember some recent research that showed The Times coming out stronger than the FT. But any developments at the WSJ would be likely to damage The Times as well as the FT."

Regardless of what resources Murdoch may pile behind the WSJ to boost its clout internationally, the issue of editorial independence at the paper remains fundamental.

Dominic Williams, the press director at Carat, says: "Editorial reputations are hard-earned but easily lost. The first sign of any 'hands-on' editorial interference from Murdoch, and the WSJ's reputation and authority could be damaged."

The widespread feeling seems to be that we're unlikely to see the familiar sight of a pink newspaper tucked under a pinstripe-suited arm in the City of London disappear at any time soon.

But with the war for readers and advertising pounds increasingly being fought online, the FT may well have a completely new battle on its hands.

NO - John Ridding, chief executive, Financial Times

"Our global strategy is paying off. We are one of the few newspapers to be posting sustained growth in circulation and advertising, and more than half of our advertising now runs in all four international editions."

MAYBE - Paul Thomas, investment director, publishing, MindShare

"In the short term, I don't believe there will be any impact. The question is, what will Murdoch do to change things? It's early days, but he isn't going to spend that amount of money without changing anything."

MAYBE - Dominic Williams, press director, Carat

"If Murdoch's acquisition means the WSJ benefits from greater investment and/or reduced overheads through sharing some back-office resources, then its competitive position must be enhanced."

YES - Marc Mendoza, managing partner, Media Planning Group

"The deal will allow Murdoch to take on the FT, but not necessarily with the WSJ. If he can retain the WSJ's integrity, and use the content to feed into other areas, News Corporation can take on the FT."

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