BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Will media mogul Rupert Murdoch swallow up The Wall Street Journal? Dow Jones's board of directors signed off on the deal last week, but the Bancroft family is serving as the obstacle the paper's founders hoped it would be - for now.
Over the 100 years the Bancrofts have held the majority of Dow Jones stock, the family tree has grown a little unwieldy. Truth is, this family has issues, conflicts among parents and children and all of their lawyers, and it seems the fate of one of the nation's few remaining influential family-owned newspapers hangs on some sort of conflict resolution, perhaps as early as next week.
It turns out that the news organization that's reported best on the Bancrofts is The Wall Street Journal. Sarah Ellison has been following that story. Sarah, welcome to the show. SARAH ELLISON: Thanks for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the reason why the Bancroft family was given a controlling share of Dow Jones to begin with was so they could act as guardians for the paper and balance journalistic integrity with business interests? SARAH ELLISON: Well, that's exactly right. I mean, this is what happened when the company went public. The Bancrofts got super voting share so they controlled ten votes for every one share, and it's exactly for that purpose. And what we've been looking at is how this mission has been passed down.
One of the younger members of the generation didn't even realize that his family owned The Wall Street Journal or that they had any money [BROOKE LAUGHS] until he saw his mother's tax return sitting out on a table at one point. So it's not something that has been instilled through every single member of the Bancroft family over the generations.
Unlike a place like The New York Times, they don't have an Arthur Sulzberger, who's the publisher of the paper. There's no Bancroft that is running things day to day at The Wall Street Journal. And so I think that some people saw, over many years, that that was a strength, because they were just letting the paper be completely independent and they were just supporting it through their ownership.
But now it adds a whole different dynamic to this situation, because some of them don't feel the same kind of connection. BROOKE GLADSTONE: We hear that the Bancrofts are looking for potential buyers to counter Murdoch's offer. Is this a new effort? SARAH ELLISON: It's relatively new. It's certainly come out since the Murdoch offer. I think this is relatively new to them, to try to really learn about what's going on inside the company and how to fix it, particularly with what's going on in the rest of the newspaper industry right now.
Some of the family members, particularly Leslie Hill, has been very active at looking at alternatives for the company. Christopher Bancroft is trying to raise money to buy out the rest of the family members who want to sell. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mentioned Christopher Bancroft. You mentioned Leslie Hill. Who are they, and who do they represent? SARAH ELLISON: Well, there are sort of broadly three branches of the Bancrofts. Lisa Steele is another Bancroft family member that's on the board of directors. So the three of them represent the three different branches of the family.
Leslie Hill is, within the family, known as very determined and sometimes contrarian. We know that Christopher Bancroft has expressed to people that he likes Murdoch's news properties as a consumer, so he doesn't have a sort of political difference with Murdoch but is still seen as someone who's been working to block the deal because he believes in the independence of Dow Jones. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when the Dow Jones board endorsed the sale, it also said that it would create a special committee to oversee the editorial direction of the paper, at least make sure it doesn't get mucked with, and that includes both the news side and the editorial board, which are enormously different. I don't think there is a thicker wall between editorial and news than there is at The Wall Street Journal.
A list of the proposed candidates for this committee was leaked. Very little journalistic experience in that panel, but a lot of real strong politics, including Ted Olson, the lawyer who defended Bush in Bush v. Gore.
Can a board like this actually protect editorial integrity at The Wall Street Journal? Can a board like this, with any membership, work? SARAH ELLISON: Well, the last question is, I think, the one that most people have been asking, which is how much can you really put your own owner in a cage? And I think people are skeptical about if you can do that and if you should try to do that.
In terms of the makeup of the board, there was an effort to find people who would, at least, understand the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. And the question is, do you need to be a journalist to be able to make smart decisions about journalism? And I think some people don't think that that's the case, and it's better to not have someone who's mucking around with small decisions about what the paper does and that acts more as sort of an appeals board for the paper.
It's really untested, though, and I don't know how it'll work out. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here you are, you're a part of a team that's been covering this story really well, and you know that there have been petitions circulated and an enormous amount of concern over what happens to some of the signature features of the paper, like the wonderful middle-of-the-front-page long feature that's so fun to read, which Murdoch apparently hates.
So, do people come up and say, you've got to write this, you've got to write that? SARAH ELLISON: Yeah. It makes covering a story like this all the more emotional, and there's just no way around that. I mean, we are covering ourselves, and this is going to have an impact on all of us.
The textbook answer is that you try to cover this like you would any other story and that you do have certain journalistic reflexes and muscles that kick in as you're doing it but that actually help you more than you would think.
You have a deadline, you have this information, you're making calls, and you put it in the paper like you would with anything else. But there are moments where you realize, of course, you're writing about your own future. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sarah, thank you so much. SARAH ELLISON: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sarah Ellison is a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]