Can Murdoch Reorient the WSJ Without Alienating Existing Customers?

With the Bancroft family, primary owner of Dow Jones & Company, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, finally agreeing Tuesday night to accept Rupert Murdoch's News Corp's $5 billion bid for the company, one would think that the soap opera would be over. But frenzied media coverage continues, mostly speculating on Murdoch's level of evil (for a rundown of his journalistic crimes see this Slate article) in general, and whether he will or will not change the venerable WSJ in particular.

The New York Time speculates that his strategy to increase readership "will probably include aggressively undercutting advertising and investing heavily in editorial content -- particularly in Washington and international news -- absorbing losses at first to win the longer-term war." In addition, he is likely to try and broaden readership beyond hard-core financial and business professionals to include consumers interested in business journalism. The Times notes, "the paper has already tried this with softer service features and its Saturday edition."

But if he attempts to lighten up the WSJ, Murdoch will certainly be walking a fine line. Paul R. La Monica expresses this succinctly in a post today on the CNN Money blog Media Biz:

"If he embarks on a radical editorial overhaul of the Journal, that could bolster the readership of publications like The New York Times (NYT), Pearson's (PSO) Financial Times, and dare I say it, Time Warner's (TWX)"
"Advertisers may not care that much about "editorial integrity" but they do care about eyeballs. If News Corp. alienates the core readers of the Journal, whom I suspect care more about stocks and bonds and less about politics and celebrity gossip, then Murdoch will have lots of angry News Corp. shareholders to deal with."
As with any company which tries to reorient an existing product or brand to attract new customers, Murdoch's News Corp risks alienating established readers by going too far with changes. If striking this balance is tricky for experienced operators like Murdoch, all managers involved in retooling an existing brand or product to attract fresh customers need to tread carefully.