In a past life, I worked at Dow Jones - specifically between 1990 and 1995 at the DJ Newswire and the DJ Multimedia Division, the company's first step into the world of interactive television. Though I was already in my upper 20s when I got the gig, this was my first serious job and I loved it. I loved business news. I loved the history and professional work standards of the place. I loved being able to get CEOs from all over the world to take my call. After leaving, I missed it for years, though I rarely admitted that to anyone.
In the past few weeks, I've been saddened watching Dow Jones fall victim to Rupert Murdoch's roving bank account. I've mixed feelings about Murdoch himself (his money does fund The Simpson's), but the main source of my discontent is that I'm no fan of media consolidation on that level. Murdoch owns enough. I think it's good for all involved when more (and different) kinds of people own media outlets. An independent Dow Jones is a good thing, even if I hate what they print.
But anyone who worked at DJ in the past 25 years had to see this coming. The one overwhelming sense I had at DJ, was that the people in charge were sitting on incredible assets and had no idea what to do with them. Over and over, huge, silly deals were implemented which resulted in nothing but lost dollars and vast employee dissatisfaction. A reason for this was explained to me by one senior editor who was closing in on retirement. He said DJ had no system for training management. The people who rose to the top were usually mediocre journalists who stayed around the longest. The star writers and editors typically left after a few years for better pay. The worst people didn't get hired (those three day try-outs weeded out the losers). And thus, DJ floated along on the efforts of the middling drones who rose to the top, none of whom were particularly creative or visionary - two rather essential skills for media empires during the past two decades.
A few examples of poor management that I saw - during my first months on the job, I watched management buyout/fire all the most senior guys on the newswire. These were the blue collar editors who had been around for 30+ years. One guy wrote the headlines for the Kennedy assassination. About 150 years years of accumulated knowledge was pushed out the door because this huge organization couldn't find out a way to utilize their skills. Training? Education? Outreach? Nope. Get rid of 'em. After that, it seemed quality of content became less and less of a concern, trumped instead by speed and quantity of output.
Another point - nobody shared information, the newspaper people in particular. They were writing for a paper published tomorrow, so they had no interest in breaking their stories with newswire or TV people working on deadlines in the next hour. The result was up to five or six writers from DJ would have to call a source for every story - one from the paper, the newswire, the radio station, the TV station, the local news desk, etc. We looked like idiots by the time the executive picked up the phone to answer the same question from writer #5. Every time DJ started a new division (like the Investor Network), it had to hire another group of writers and editors because we could never get content (or cooperation) from other divisions.
And then there was the brilliant decision of creating a closed circuit TV-on-demand network for less than 100 clients which required running our own cable and satellite dishes around Wall Street and the country. All this just a few years before the internet would render such a stand-alone system pointless. Ooops.
Working at DJ could be like living in the Balkans. Everybody looked out for themselves and the management never tried to break down walls. Instead, they'd create another tribe with more walls, give them a bit of desk space and budget and hoped they helped solve the problem. They didn't.
I bring this up because I just read the letter written by Crawford Hill, one of the Bancroft kids and published in the WSJ Online. The Bancroft family controls the lion's share of DJ stock and it's up to them to okay the Murdoch deal. In his 4,000-word letter - filled with more than a few WASPy, rich kid memories - Crawford points out that the management problem of Dow Jones went right up through the family ownership. He says: "We never really figured out how to be owners when we needed to most... As my brother Tom has pointed out, it was a special challenge to be owners of this company because of the added "disconnect" of the fact that the real "owners" were really the various trusts. By extension that really meant that the professional trustees were in essence the owners and they were certainly never trained in that capacity."
Crawford's POV is - our family blew it years ago by ignoring the responsibilities for owning such a company so let's take the money and run because it'll make shareholders happy and get us off the hook. It's honest, but sad. I suppose hiring a team of professional, creative managers never crossed their minds...and that's what they were supposed to be doing all along! Well, I suppose Dow Jones will now get what it deserves. When you preach free markets, don't be surprised when you get bought and sold.