Why Rupert Murdoch Cannot Destroy the New York Times

Last Updated Apr 27, 2010 2:52 PM EDT

Remember newsprint? That old media is back in the news big time -- at least in New York.

Media gurus have spent the last couple of days obsessing over The Wall Street Journal's 14-page Greater New York edition, launched yesterday. To hear the punditry tell it, those 14 pages could squash The New York Times because of two things. First, the WSJ' cut rates to get advertisers to buy into the edition -- made possible, of course, by the deep pockets of parent company, News Corp. Second, there is the outsized ambition of CEO Rupert Murdoch, who is generally perceived as having magical powers that mere mortal executives -- like Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. -- don't. (WSJ managing editor Robert Thomson is shown here introducing the edition.)

But there's something essential missing from the logic: consumer brand loyalty. It's ultimately readers, not Rupert Murdoch, who drive that bus, which makes it silly to even question whether a newspaper that's been covering the New York scene for 160 years can be bested by one that started doing it, well, yesterday. Sure, it's hard to resist a story with the headline: "Rats Mob The Upper East Side," which appeared in the Journal yesterday, but a few juicy headlines, and a mere two pages of local sports coverage, do not a newspaper war make. Readers have to be part of the battle as well.

Yes, it is true that Murdoch is hoping that low print ad rates will sway advertisers. But New York advertisers are not going to achieve the reach they need if they buy only the Journal -- even if they follow News Corp.'s advice and buy the Post as part of the package for good measure. The Journal has bigger national circulation -- and has just seen a small uptick in it, while the Times did not -- but the Times isn't called the paper-of-record for nothing. Online or off, it's the essential New York read -- the very definition of brand loyalty.

As a quick exercise, I went through yesterday's Times to get a feel for the advertising make-up. Many -- maybe as much as half -- of the display ads contained the address for a local retailer, even when a global brand, such as Tiffany & Co. was being advertised. Do you really think, given the loyalty of Times' readers, that such an advertiser can scale back their Times' ad commitment in favor of the Journal? I doubt it.

I've got a theory why this alleged war has gotten so much ink (and bits). It's because New Yorkers love a good media story -- especially when the story is all about New York.