Saturday, December 8, 2007

New WSJ Publisher Is A Former Rival

Back in mid-2001, the Financial Times' search for a successor to outgoing Editor Richard Lambert narrowed down to two candidates.

FT Deutschland Editor Andrew Gowers prevailed to win the top job, only to be eased out four years later due to a disagreement with parent Pearson (nyse: PSO - news - people ) over strategy. He is now a managing director at Lehman Brothers (nyse: LEH - news - people ) in charge of corporate communications, marketing and branding in Europe.

More intriguing was the loser in that battle: the paper's U.S. managing editor, Robert Thomson, who expanded the FT's stateside coverage and circulation, much of it at the expense of The Wall Street Journal.

After being passed over, Thomson signed on with Rupert Murdoch, becoming editor of The Times of London. But now he's packing his bags for another assignment at News Corp. (nyse: NWS - news - people ): publisher of Dow Jones & Co. (nyse: DJ - news - people ) and the Journal.

In a corporate melodrama that could provide a migraine for the FT, Thomson now has a golden opportunity to show his former employer what it missed out on. His boss certainly will be counting on it. With Dow Jones shareholders scheduled to vote next week on the merger, Murdoch has made Thomson a central figure in his shakeup of the managerial ranks at his soon-to-be subsidiary.

Dow Jones Chief Executive Richard Zannino said Thursday he will be leaving once News Corp. completes its takeover of the company. Dow Jones Executive Vice President and Wall Street Journal Publisher Gordon Crovitz confirmed Friday that he would do the same. Crovitz will be replaced by Thomson, and Zannino's successor will be News International Executive Chairman Les Hinton.

While the appointments of Murdoch confidants Thomson and Hinton will likely cause some unease among the Dow Jones rank and file, both are former journalists and career newspapermen.

As head of News International, Hinton, 63, has been responsible for News Corp.'s British newspaper group, which includes "quality" publications like The Times and The Times Literary Supplement and flamboyant mass-circulation tabloids such as The Sun and News of the World. He has previously worked for News Corp. as a reporter and executive in Australia, the U.S. and the U.K.

Then there's Thomson, 46, a long-time FT hand who was the paper's Beijing correspondent from 1985 to 1989, when he covered the crushing of the Chinese democracy movement at Tiananmen Square, and was Tokyo bureau chief from 1989 to 1994.

Thomson was widely respected within the FT for his reporting bona fides and his sharp editing skills. As the FT's weekend editor, he oversaw a successful redesign of the weekend edition, which prompted a sharp rise in circulation. Later, as U.S. managing editor, he led the paper's drive to grow its modest presence on this side of the Atlantic.

Although dwarfed by the Journal in terms of staffing and readership, the FT quickly proved itself a thorn in the side of the larger business daily. A key win over the Journal came in November 1998, when the FT broke the news of merger talks between Exxon and Mobil. The FT ultimately saw U.S. circulation more than triple under Thomson's leadership.

So what will be on Thomson's agenda as Journal publisher? One of his tasks will feel rather familiar: grow the paper's presence in Europe, where the FT has long enjoyed a far larger readership. In other words, do for the Journal in Europe what he did for the FT in the U.S. Another assignment: broaden the Journal's appeal as a national daily to compete better with The New York Times.

The Mandarin-speaking Thomson will also be watched closely by press critics and Dow Jones employees who doubt Murdoch's commitment to critical reporting of China. In May, former Dow Jones executive and major shareholder James Ottaway voiced opposition to the News Corp. takeover, arguing in a statement that News Corp. "has had to kowtow to Chinese Communist government censorship of news and opinion."

That prompted an indignant Thomson to fire off a letter in response: "As a Beijing correspondent, I was in Tiananmen Square on the night of the massacre in 1989 and was thrown out of Tibet by heavy-handed Chinese officials, so the explicit allegation that we are pandering to the Communist Party came as rather a surprise," he wrote.

In the meantime, Thomson isn't the only alumnus that the FT has to keep a wary eye on. His expected successor as editor of The Times is James Harding, another former FT reporter and editor whom Thomson had recruited to the News Corp. daily. And last year, The Daily Telegraph, a key FT competitor in coverage of the City of London, appointed former FT News Editor Will Lewis as editor.

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