Stephen Foley: Round one: battle for news-stands hits New York

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The Independent Online

US Outlook: It's the clash that has New York's media community salivating: the Murdochs versus the Sulzbergers, and the bell rings for round one on Monday morning. That is when Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal launches a New York edition, aimed squarely at damaging the Sulzberger family-controlled New York Times, the Old Grey Lady of American newspaper history.

Mr Murdoch has coveted the American Times for as long as he has owned the British namesake, but since buying the Journal in 2007 he has vowed, if you can't buy it, beat it. It promises to be a deliciously scurrilous knockabout – and deadly serious business. For the Times, listing under $671m of debt, Mr Murdoch represents a potentially deadly threat. The exercise is also not without its dangers for the Australian-born mogul. I suspect I know the biggest winner, and it is not either of them.

Even the warm-up sparring has gotten personal, as Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the Times, discovered last month. He opened the Journal to find a picture of the lower half of his face used to illustrate a piece about feminine men.

The Journal is said to be steeply undercutting the Times on the rates it charges New York advertisers, something that is raising hackles at Times headquarters, even if they expressed equanimity in public when they reported a return to profit this week. Times bosses claim that 75 per cent of Journal readers also read their paper, so they have little to fear. But that is precisely the figure Mr Murdoch hopes to change. By building a full-service newspaper, complete with local news and gossip, around the Journal's must-read business coverage, it hopes that New York readers will be able to dispense with their copies of the Times all together.

The context is the shifting landscape of the US newspaper business. Hurricane-force competition for readers and advertisers has hollowed out many regional titles, and while many stagger on as shells of their former selves, it seems likely the real business of gathering news will centre on a few mighty brands. The New York Times is now in effect a national newspaper, with multiple regional editions, and the New York edition coming from the Journal is likely to be just the first salvo in a war that the Murdochs and the Sulzbergers will end up waging across the map of the US.

But here's the risk. As the Journal beefs up its non-business coverage and increasingly goes head to head with the Times, it will throw the politics of the two papers into stark relief. The Times has been a beacon of liberalism since 1851, and the frothing right-wingery of the Journal's op-ed pages is legend.

Despite promises signed when he took it over that he would not interfere in editorial content, Mr Murdoch's presence is being felt. Partisan opinion appears to be leaching into news coverage, something that is more and more often a topic of discussion among business people here. It has become particularly acute since the bitter fight over health reform, which the Journal never failed to call "ObamaCare" in a disparaging tone of voice. For now, the Journal remains pre-eminent in its coverage of the business world, but its lead is not what it once was and the grumbling is growing. While Mr Murdoch turns its face to fight the Times, and risks being seen as printing "Fox News on Paper", the Journal is opening up an opportunity for something a little pinker. The Financial Times, so dominant in the business community in Europe but so-far distant a second here, could seize its chance.

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