BOOK REVIEW: ‘Newspaperman’

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By Warren H. Phillips
McGraw Hill, $30, 336 pages

There have been some inglorious comedowns since the news industry began falling apart in the past decade. The Los Angeles Times once harbored ambitions to take on the New York Times before a bunch of former disc jockeys from the radio business helped run it into bankruptcy. Newsweek was unloaded for $1 and now sells magazines by punking Michele Bachmann.

None of these transactions, though, was more humbling than the purchase four years ago of the Wall Street Journal, one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers, by the man whose vulgar British tabloid is behind the British phone-hacking scandal. That, of course, would be Rupert Murdoch, whose newspapers and Fox TV are loathed by mainstream reporters - including many, no doubt, at the Journal - for their conservative slant on the news.

So here’s Warren H. Phillips, a distinguished reporter who wound up running Dow Jones in the 1970s and 1980s to explain why it wasn’t his fault.

One of the problems with this book is that he’s mostly right. His hand hasn’t been on the tiller for 20 years.

That’s too long ago to be relevant to the events leading up to the sale. Yes, Mr. Phillips was in charge when parent company Dow Jones decided in the 1980s to buy the financial information company Telerate, probably its biggest single mistake, and he anointed Peter Kann, another star reporter, to run the company right up until Mr. Murdoch bought it. Mr. Phillips isn’t blameless, but he hasn’t been a player in years.

Nor does the book work in the alternative as merely an interesting yarn, the tale of the unassuming immigrant’s son who went from swashbuckling foreign correspondent in the 1950s, reporting from exotic locales on the postwar ferment, to top executive at the best financial newspaper in the world. That, at least, is how the publisher is positioning it.

Mr. Phillips had an extraordinarily impressive career, but he hasn’t provided much context for it here - the book is mostly a long, often dreary recitation of job moves and meetings with famous people, more like a not terribly illuminating diary, with an occasional irrelevant anecdote playing through. (At one point, apropos to nothing, he relates the menu for a state dinner he attended.)

Nor is the writing the crisp, tangy prose one would expect from a decorated Journal correspondent. Here newsrooms are “bustling and colorful” places where characters could have come straight from “central casting.” He interviews John Foster Dulles but doesn’t say about what or fit the secretary of state into any sort of historical perspective. Of the assassination of President Kennedy, Mr. Phillips says simply it was “the end of another era.”

Much of the book seems merely ancillary to another purpose: to defend Mr. Phillips‘ management of the company.

To its credit, Dow Jones promoted business executives from the news side of the operation, including Mr. Phillips, who had been the top journalist at the Journal before he ascended the corporate ranks (a practice rare in newspapers, where publishers tend to come from advertising or circulation).

That meant management favored aggressive, fearless coverage of powerful and wealthy business interests, something that petrifies the average faint-hearted publisher. Despite being brilliant journalists, top executives may have lacked the chops to run a fair-sized public company, especially when the salad days ended and the newspaper business turned south thanks to the advent of the Internet.

Or, in the words of Joe Nocera, the New York Times columnist, just before Mr. Murdoch bought the Journal: “For a long time now, Dow Jones has been the worst-run media company in the country.”

For Mr. Phillips, the arguments about the Journal’s management come down to two: Did the star journalists Dow Jones promoted to run the business side of the company manage it so poorly that they helped kill it as an independent company? Specifically, did the Telerate deal, which forced a massive write-down, weaken the company so much as to put it in play?

“I don’t buy either argument,” Mr. Phillips says. Sure, he faults himself and other executives for not understanding Telerate’s business very well and not putting more money into it to keep it abreast of competitors like Bloomberg. But all newspapers, including the Journal, he says, were victims of a “tectonic shift” that even the canniest executives - former reporters or holders of MBAs alike - couldn’t have predicted or dodged.

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