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Robert Thomson is heir apparent at the Wall Street Journal

By Carol Eisenberg

April 28, 2008 at 7:32am

Of course, Rupert Murdoch already has two grown sons. But the man poised to become the No. 1 player at the Wall Street Journal – Robert J. Thomson - has become almost like an honorary third son to the Australian media baron, say those who know them.

The similarities between the two men are uncanny. They share Australian roots and the same March 11 birthday, albeit 30 years apart. Both consider themselves citizens of the world, having lived on several different continents. Both are married to Chinese women and have children of about the same age.

The two families have vacationed together at Murdoch’s ranch in California, where Wendi Murdoch and Thomson’s wife, Wang Ping, speak Mandarin to each other, according to a 2007 profile of Thomson in the Canberra Times.

But Thomson, publisher of the Wall Street Journal and a force in the newsroom even before last week’s ouster of managing editor Marcus Brauchli, came up the hard way. The eldest of three sons, he grew up in a working-class family in rural Australia, according to the Canberra Times.

At age 17, he became a copy boy at The Herald , an evening paper in Melbourne once edited by Sir Keith Arthur Murdoch, Rupert’s father. In the early 1980s, after being hired by The Sydney Morning Herald , Thomson earned his stripes by exposing corruption in the country’s judiciary, which would become the subject of his first book, The Judges, in 1987.

His career took off when The Herald tapped him to go to Beijing at the age of 24, and he covered the crushing of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests by the Chinese army. That’s also where he met his wife, the daughter of a Chinese general, whom he married in a traditional Chinese ceremony in 1992.

In the summer of 1998, Thomson became Editor of the US edition of the Financial Times , overseeing the FT Group’s drive into the US market and tripling the newspaper’s circulation in four years. Perhaps most significantly, he got to know Murdoch while in New York.

Thomson was reportedly crushed after losing out in a competition to head the FT, but shortly thereafter, in March, 2002, Murdoch offered him the top job at The Times of London. He made a name for himself as the Australian who turned the venerable British broadsheet into a tabloid - and managed to boost circulation in the process.

“In Britain, people think of it as stodgy, extremely traditional,” he said last year at a lecture at RMIT University in Australia, where he received a journalism degree in 1989.

“So, it took an Australian to shrink it in to a tabloid, or a compact,” he joked. “We used the ‘c’ word, so it was more socially acceptable.”

Described as tall, thin and with a slight stoop because of a back problem, Mr. Thomson is by all accounts, well-liked by the reporters who have worked for him. A profile of him in the Independent in 2005, focused on his easygoing style.

With his engagingly matey manner, rather scruffy ankle boots, and tie and suit outfit that look as though they come from Topshop’s “Mod” section circa 1980, Thomson seems in no imminent danger of being swallowed up by the ranks of the traditional British elite.

The story goes on:

Former colleagues from the FT remember him fondly, but also as someone with a carefully concealed ambition. “He was utterly charming,” recalls one, “but under that exterior of zen calm lies a ruthless ambition.” Even then, his dress sense marked him out as someone different. “He takes a lot of care over his clothes, although he pretends not to,” says a contemporary from FT days. “He’s not a city gent type - he’s a dude.”

Thomson looks flustered when I bring this up. “Well, er, I’m not consciously a dude,” he says, “and I don’t know what a dude is, really. Or what a dude does. I genuinely don’t give a lot of thought to my clothes, but if the impression is that I do, then I’m glad that I give that impression. I am wearing a suit and a tie.”

Thomson was a close advisor Murdoch in his acquisition of Dow Jones last year. More recently, as publisher of the Wall Street Journal, he has been a strong presence in the newsroom so his ascension to the top editorial post would not be a big leap. The question is how it will be received by the Journal’s old guard. Stay tuned.

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