How not to cover Murdoch

The New York Times can’t compete with the Wall Street Journal on general business

and finance stories. But it does have aspirations to own one particular beat:

media, that most New York of American businesses. So when Lachlan Murdoch resigned

from News Corporation on Friday morning, it was inevitable that the story

would appear on the front page of Saturday’s Times. What was not inevitable

was that the NYT story would be so bad.

There was a lot of time to write the story. The news was released early on

Friday morning, which means that Richard Siklos had all day to come up with

something good. And he did, if by "good" you mean "long":

his article comes in at some 1,600 words.

But evidently the extra time ended up simply giving Siklos (along with contributors

Geraldine Fabrikant and Katharine Seelye) more room to hang himself.

The angle they ended up taking is simply bizarre: "Murdoch Son Leaves

News Corp., Tossing Succession Into Question" runs the headline. But if

anything the opposite is the case: with Lachlan out of the picture, it’s more

certain than ever that if and when Rupert retires or dies, he’ll be replaced

by Peter Chernin. Maybe, at some distant point in the future, James or even

Lachlan could end up running the company. But right now I’d say there’s less

question over Murdoch’s successor than ever – as you might expect when

one of the contenders takes himself out of the running.

Moving on, it doesn’t take long for the story to descend into incoherent cliché.

"The abruptness of his departure suggested a palace intrigue of the kind

that some of the News Corporation’s media holdings – like The Sun in London

or The New York Post newspapers or the Fox News Channel – would follow with

great relish," we’re told. Huh? Can anybody really imagine the Sun or Fox

News caring in the slightest about this story? No one at either of those places

needs to be gagged by Rupert on this one: it’s simply not a story of mass appeal.

Most Fox News viewers don’t even know who Rupert is, let alone care about Lachlan.

Even more hilariously, New York Times house style seems to dictate that we

pause in the middle of the sentence to be told that the New York Post is a newspaper.

Then we’re told again in the following paragraph, which talks about

"The New York Post newspaper, where he was publisher". The first time

it seems quaint and mildly patronising. The second time, it’s simply farcical.

Indeed, talking of NYT house style, throughout the piece the name of the company

in question is always "the News Corporation", not "News Corporation"

or just plain News Corp, which is what all human beings call it. What the definite

article adds, I have no idea.

Pretty soon, the story lapses into utter narrative incoherence. Here’s a typical

sequence:

In a statement, Lachlan said, "I would like especially to thank my father

for all he has taught me in business and in life."

In the quarter ended March 31, the News Corporation reported earnings of $400

million on sales of $6 billion, compared with earnings of $434 million on

sales of $5.2 billion. Wall Street’s reaction to the news was muted, with

shares of News Corporation down 23 cents, to $17.34 yesterday.

Merrill Lynch media analyst Jessica Reif Cohen said that with Lachlan’s departure

she believes James "becomes the heir-apparent to his father’s empire.

However, this remains a very long-term issue, as we continue to expect Mr.

Chernin will take the helm of the company when Rupert Murdoch retires."

Lachlan Murdoch was raised in the United States but spent six years working

at, and eventually running, the Australian businesses in the 1990′s. His record

in that country, where he was chairman of its newspaper operations, was blemished

by a $475 million (Australian) investment in One.Tel, a telecom company that

collapsed in 2000.

Each paragraph is utterly unrelated to the last: it makes for exhausting reading,

and precious little illumination – News Corp earned $434 million when,

exactly? The previous quarter? The same quarter last year? And when the Times

talks about "Wall Street’s reaction to the news," does it mean the

earnings or the Lachlan news? Indeed, did the earnings even come out yesterday?

The NYT doesn’t even do us the service of telling us what A$475 million is

in US dollars, let alone give us a proper noun for the "its" in "its

newspaper operations" to refer to. It’s all extremely difficult to understand

– and actually impossible to understand, when you get a bit further down

the article to the bit where it tries to explain the family shareholdings.

I could go on like this indefinitely, nit-picking the article apart, but you

get the picture. There is one moment of comedy: we’re told that "while

Lachlan is more pensive, James is more cerebral". Hm. Glad that’s cleared

up.

It’s entirely possible to write a perfectly clear and concise article on this

subject: the Guardian did an admirable

job, and I’m sure most other newspapers did too. But all too often, the

New York Times, with its overlong articles and need to somehow squeeze into

the story every single fact it can lay its hands on, publishes puddings like

this. If the Times really aspires to owning the media beat, it’s going to have

to rise to the occasion when something worthy of the front page comes along.

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3 Responses to How not to cover Murdoch

  1. Gari N Corp says:

    My pet theory is that some of its difficulties in writing coherent business stories stem from its increasing reliance on Bloomberg for short news stories. Bloomberg’s style manual is easily as restrictive as the Times’, and its longer features are almost unreadable, so incoherent are they.

  2. Ben says:

    I agree with your observations. But I would differ with you when you imply that the NYT is at a disadvantage to the WSJ only in areas of finance. The NYT can’t compete with the WSJ in any areas at all, other than, perhaps, fashion, stories about rich hipsters making good in the hood, and the New York Metro Section. The Times in total has become a farce. So completely up its own ass, so totally self-indulgent and biased as to become irrelevant. I used to love the Times. It has been eclipsed by the Journal. Totally.

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