What’s going on with the Wall Street Journal and Apple?

July 23, 2011, 12:50 PM UTC

The Rupert Murdoch-owned paper ran a couple of very odd stories this week

Murdoch launched The Daily on Apple's iPad in February. Photo: PED

There’s not much doubt, Rupert Murdoch declared on his Fox News cable network last year, that Steve Jobs is the best chief executive in the U.S.

“He’s got such incredible focus,” he told an interviewer. “He’s got such power inspiring the people around him who work for him. And, you know, it’s — it’s a highly, highly disciplined company… and it makes beautiful products.”

That was in June 2010, when Murdoch was still plotting with Apple (AAPL) to launch The Daily. The owner of the now defunct News of the World has been busy with more pressing concerns, but we haven’t heard much from him lately about Jobs’ incredible focus or the beauty of Apple’s products. In fact, a couple of stories in the Wall Street Journal this week suggest there may have been a shift in the editorial wind at Murdoch’s News Corp. (NWS) properties.

  • On Tuesday, less than half an hour before Apple was scheduled to announce what turned out to be record-smashing earnings, the Journal ran Some Apple Directors Ponder CEO Succession, a thinly sourced piece that claimed members of Apple’s board had been talking to “executive recruiters and at least one head of a high-profile technology company” about who might replace the ailing Steve Jobs. Jobs, in an e-mail to the Journal, described the story as “hogwash.” Daring Fireball‘s John Gruber went further. He ripped the piece apart in a detailed analysis Friday that suggested it might have been deliberately planted to take the wind out of Apple’s earnings report. “The more I think about this story, the worse it looks,” he wrote. “Everyone knows the question of succeeding Jobs is attached to dynamite.”
  • On Friday, after the 122% bump in earnings and a flurry of new products drove Apple’s share price to record heights, the Journal capped the week with a story entitled Share the Wealth: Why Apple’s Success Isn’t Spreading to Others. “Apple is crushing it,” wrote Dave Kansas, the Journal‘s chief market commentator, “but its success is disrupting the technology sector in ways that could hurt the stocks of many other players—friend and foe alike… Apple has become so dominant that is becoming more a threat—rather than a sentiment booster—to the rest of the technology sector.”

What’s going on? We can only speculate. But Murdoch, despite what he told a Parliamentary committee this week, is a hands-on editor, and nowhere more so than at the Journal. Could the paper’s editorial attitude toward Apple have anything to do with what’s happening at The Daily?

We don’t hear much about Murdoch’s iPad-only publication these days, but it was the talk of every newsroom in America not that many months ago. With Steve Jobs’ personal encouragement, Murdoch was said to be assembling a hand-picked staff of 100 on the 27th floor of News Corp. headquarters to create what was being described as “the future of journalism.”

When The Daily launched in February, Murdoch predicted that it would “sell millions.” Five months later, that doesn’t seem a likely prospect. Although the company reported in March that the iPad app (free at first, now 99-cents per week) had been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, it has never revealed any paid circulation numbers. The best we have is a Nieman Journalism Lab analysis of Twitter updates emanating from The Daily that suggests that after an initial flurry of interest, readership has been in steady decline.

Murdoch has not always been enamored of Steve Jobs. Michael Wolff, the author of
The Man Who Owns the News
, says that in his presence Murdoch once described Jobs as a “loon.” If Murdoch feels he’s been betrayed by The Daily — an adventure that ran up $30 million in start-up costs and has been burning through nearly $500,000 a week ever since —  who knows what he’s saying about Apple’s CEO today?