July 02, 2008
A Letter to Rupert Murdoch, or Breaking up Is Hard to Do
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

Dear Rupert,

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about 2 months ago about the changes you’ve been making to the paper. It left me feeling frustrated, and I’d like to end our relationship. Unfortunately, because I had a baby girl about 9 months ago, I am frequently unable to compose letters to owners of major newspapers in a timely fashion. That May morning I got as far as crafting little snippets of an incisive, pointed critique of your new editorial policies, and then gave it up to finish breakfast, restore the kitchen to a semblance of order, and return to grading exams. What stuck with me is that you’ve urged more “newsy,” shorter articles, that end on page one. Editors have scornfully poo-poohed articles with the gestation period of a llama (almost a year, for those not up on llama reproductive cycles).

First, the obligatory introductions, bona fides, and disclaimers. I have been a loyal reader for 8 years. I’ve seen the move to color print, the welcome additions of the Personal Journal, Weekend section, and the Saturday/Sunday edition. I suggest the WSJ to all my students, and require it for my seminar. And I’m just a simple corporate law professor. You make more money in a week than I do all year. That said, for what it’s worth, here’s my take:

Huh?

1. More newsy: I have lots of avenues for news in my life. CNN, Fox News, NPR, the Newshour, countless websites. Where’s your comparative advantage here? As far as straight news goes, your paper starts to stale the minute it goes to press. You’re selling yesterday’s news on today’s doorstep.

2. More newsy II: People who buy papers are increasingly people who love papers. See #1—there’s plenty of other sources for those who want “just the news, ma’am.” Papers’ advantage over TV comes from their reader-directedness. I get to read what I want—I construct my own news experience. I, personally, skip the articles where the headline basically says it all: e.g. “Corn Harvest to Be Larger Than Thought,” from yesterday’s paper. Yup, got it, I don’t need to read more. But then there are the articles that teach me—these are the ones I linger over, savor. There was an article on voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology your paper printed 5 years ago. A teasing few columns on the front page, and a whole, glorious full spread in the inside jump pages about the technology, the industry, the regulatory risks and concerns. When a month later my firm represented an investor in Vonage, I pointed the partner I worked with straight to the piece, and basked in its reflected glory. Were llamas born during the making of that article? I don’t know and I don’t care. I wouldn’t have read it anywhere else. Your series on the fall of Bear Stearns last month—that’s what I’m talking about. Teach me, make me look smart, that’s why I love you.

3. The website issue: here’s your real competition for news, and here you have reader-directedness par excellence, with the bonus of no newsprint to wash off your fingers. You can’t beat these guys in the news race, it’s a losing proposition. Your comparative advantage is credibility, it seems to me. And the pleasure of the printed word digested (a verb chosen deliberately, because I often read the WSJ over breakfast or lunch).

4. You’re right, you’re right, I know you’re right. I’ll keep coming back, eternally hopeful. You’re not losing me yet, you’re not even close to losing me yet. And maybe you’ll get younger, more hip readers with your new strategy, and still keep stringing me along. I get it. But if you keep this up, maybe, someday, I’ll finally listen to my husband and start reading the Economist. I don’t want to. They’re less gossipy, less American, less fun. Still, they do have that wry sense of humor, and it’s kind of cute how they spell civilization with an “s.” I’m still yours, Rupert. But for how long?

Wistfully,
Usha Rodrigues

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