July 28, 2007— -- An old joke in the newspaper world holds that The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country, The New York Times by those who think they run the country, The Washington Post by those who think they ought to run the country and The Boston Globe by people whose parents used to run the country.
Whether or not that is true, The Wall Street Journal does hold tremendous sway. It reaches one of the largest audiences and has some of the richest and most-powerful readers of any newspaper.
So as the Bancroft family mulls whether to sell The Journal and its parent company, Dow Jones, to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., many people are paying particularly close attention to what is otherwise a fairly routine business deal.
While newspaper's influence is waning as readers and advertisers migrate to the Internet, the newspaper still provides an important public service.
"It is one of the finest -- if not the finest -- papers in the country," said Arlene Morgan, associate dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a former assistant managing editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. "I am a big fan. I read it religiously.
"Every day I pick up the paper and find something that I didn't expect, that surprises me, that I wouldn't have known otherwise," she said. "They're analytical. They have fun with the writing. It is one of the premier writing institutions in the country."
Each day more than 2 million people pick up a copy of The Wall Street Journal or read it online, more than any other newspaper in the country, except USA Today, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
More than three-fourths of them have a college degree, and their average household income is $234,909. The readers of USA Today and The New York Times tend to earn less.
The Journal has a strong grasp on a group of readers who have the disposable income to spend on big-ticket items. A full-page color ad in the paper costs $168,500 to $234,000.
Friday's paper has ads for private jets, expensive watches, a $12.5 million house in Vail, Colo., and a ranch in Montana for $13.5 million.
(The Wall Street Journal holds added value for Murdoch because News Corp. is launching its own cable business channel, which is expected to compete head to head with CNBC.)
"The Journal is to Wall Street and capital markets what The New York Times is to the White House and the State Department and U.S. politics," said Dean Starkman, who spent eight years as a reporter at The Journal and is now assistant managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. "It's the most authoritative watchdog there is. It is the paper of record."
Starkman said The Journal has lost some of its luster in recent years. Part of that is a general decline in newspaper readership and part of it is because The Journal is now focusing on more hard business news -- inside baseball-type of coverage.
Still, he said, it's a great paper that does what few publications can.
If you're interested in the markets and business, Starkman said, The Journal is an "indispensable source. There's no substitute."
Part of that is because of the large staff that digs deeply into topics. "Over the last 20 years, at its height, it had an enormous staff," said Starkman, who used to cover real estate. "We had seven real estate reporters."
Today, The Journal has a news staff of more than 750 worldwide, according to Robert H. Christie, spokesman for the paper.
Many media watchers fear that Murdoch will interfere with the independence The Journal's editors and reporters now have. Such meddling could diminish the paper's stature and influence.
So why should those outside the media and business worlds care?
Starkman said The Journal covers everything -- from credit cards to banks to cars to the food supply.
"You want a large, powerful, sophisticated news organization keeping an eye on all of that," he said. "You want somebody looking over the shoulder of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the FCC and the FDA."
Richard Roth, senior associate dean and faculty member at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, said The Journal is the "first or second most important paper in the country."
"They are clearly the authority in so many things, particularly in business issues," he said.
And if for some reason they change or didn't exist, Roth said: "Who would discover Enron?" referring to problems at the Texas The Journal was among the first to uncover.
The paper has a wide range of knowledge, Columbia's Morgan points out. Not only does the paper cover business, but it also reviews wines, and is a leading voice on technology.
The paper has won 33 Pulitzer Prizes, including one awarded in 2005 to Joe Morgenstern for his film reviews.
"We're so entertainment and celebrity crazed that we're just not getting the kind information to make decisions about who we are as a country," Morgan said. "So as we really do less and less on our news pages, it's more important to have papers like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post that you can depend on to be there."