Has The Journal Lost Its Soul?

(The Nation, April 22, 2009)

In the upper ranks of American newspaper editors, Eugene Roberts is a highly regarded figure: under his stewardship in the 1970s and '80s, the Philadelphia Inquirer won seventeen Pulitzer Prizes in eighteen years. Last spring, while researching a piece about Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of the Wall Street Journal, a reporter for The Atlantic contacted Roberts and found him in a pessimistic frame of mind: "Murdoch says he wants to turn it into something more like the New York Times," Roberts said, "but I suspect it will end up looking more like USA Today."

I recently phoned Roberts and asked him if the Wall Street Journal had, in fact, emerged as a replica of Gannett's USA Today. Roberts retreated from his earlier remark and made it clear, in his low-key manner, that he admires Murdoch's Journal: "I've been impressed with what I've seen so far," he told me. "There is more foreign reporting. It's more of a general-interest newspaper. On the whole they are doing a good job of pursuing political and national stories fairly and accurately."

Indeed, Murdoch's Journal is winning praise from many quarters. "I think it's better," says Walter Pincus of the Washington Post. "They're printing more stories. Their coverage of Washington has expanded." Says columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.: "I am reading the new Journal with great pleasure because business and economic news is now everybody's news and because they continue to have some first-rate political reporting." "The Journal is a much improved newspaper," says Harold Evans, who clashed bitterly with Murdoch at the Times of London in 1981. "I think the way they've begun to cover politics and the extra space they've put into the paper--that's all to the good. Let's not underestimate the fact that this is a pretty massive investment that they are making."

These comments come as something of a surprise: a great many soothsayers had predicted that Murdoch's ownership would have regrettable, if not catastrophic, consequences for the newspaper. Murdoch stoked those fears: he joked with Time in June 2007, six months before he concluded his $5.6 billion acquisition of Dow Jones & Company, owner of the Journal, that he would put tabloid-style photos of half-naked women in its hallowed pages--provided those women had MBA degrees.

But the wrecking ball has not come to the Journal; sleaze has not invaded its pages; the most dire fears have not been realized. Murdoch has not extinguished quality writing at the paper; he has not transformed the China coverage to benefit his business interests in China; he has not terminated the paper's superb coverage of art, photography, music, dance and theater; he has not murdered the "A-hed," the quirky feature that has adorned Page 1 since 1941; and so on. Says Byron Calame, a deputy assistant managing editor of the Journal who went on to become public editor of the New York Times from 2005 to 2007: "I'm not aware of any corruption of the news standards."

But the Journal has changed in very significant ways. Quite a few Journal watchers--including many people who left the paper but continue to care deeply about it--are reading it with disquiet and unease. They see a newspaper whose coverage of the financial crisis, while impressive in many respects, lacks analytical rigor; a newspaper that is running shorter articles; a newspaper whose copy-editing standards have declined; and a newspaper that is abandoning a rich tradition of long-form narrative journalism.

One picks up the Journal these days with relief and sadness--relief that the newspaper is not an amalgamation of the Murdoch-owned New York Post, Fox News and The Weekly Standard; and sadness that reporters who once wrote finely textured, emotionally affecting feature stories on a universe of subjects now produce, in too many cases, ordinary news stories. "Scoops" and "news" are the new Murdochian mantras, and reporters are generally expected to spend two or three weeks on a piece, not two or three months. Long-form journalism, says one reporter, is "less cherished, less savored" by the new regime led by Murdoch's handpicked editor in chief, Robert Thomson, former editor of Murdoch's Times of London. (Thomson declined to be interviewed for this article.)

"For decades the DNA of the Journal was this double helix: incredibly strong business reporting and incredibly strong narrative/analytical writing," says Joshua Prager, a long-form reporter who recently left the newspaper after almost thirteen years. "But now they've ripped one of the strands out of it: narrative writing is all but gone. As a result, the Wall Street Journal has lost its soul."

Others agree that long-form writing has taken a hit. "As a reader," says Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, "I really miss the long, well-told narratives and ambitious investigative projects. Thomson decries that kind of journalism as a self-indulgence, although I think it brought the old Journal great respect and devotion."

Murdoch has not corrupted the Journal. Instead, he has smothered it and made it ordinary. When Prager invokes the Journal's "soul," he is referring to a tradition that was old-fashioned in the best sense, the sense that valued novelty, surprise and seriousness. An old copy of the Journal was a bit like an old copy of The New Yorker: one could pick it up months later and find something fresh, enduring and original. Today, if you pick up a month-old copy of the Journal, you will mostly find stale news.

Jim Sterba, who joined the Wall Street Journal in 1982 after sixteen unhappy years as a reporter at A.M. Rosenthal's New York Times, captured the old Journal in his 2003 book Frankie's Place: A Love Story.

Journal correspondents never wrote stories that began, "President Bhutto today denounced." They never wrote a story from Vietnam as I often did for the Times that began: "B-52 bombers hit fresh suspected enemy strongholds south of the Demilitarized Zone today." Journal correspondents went looking for their own stories, often wandering serendipitously across the landscape, going wherever the thread of an idea took them. They seemed to take as much time as they needed.... They could be subtle.

The serendipity and subtlety were principally displayed on Page 1, whose design called to mind newspapers of the nineteenth century: columns of undisturbed prose, accentuated by black-and-white line drawings, nestled beneath sly, multilayered headlines. (Photographs did not appear regularly until 2002.) Yet there was nothing antiquated about the writing: Page 1 was not primarily a venue for "hard news" and journalistic ephemera but a home for explanatory narrative, interpretation and storytelling. As a national newspaper, the Journal occupied a special niche: it was a "second read," perused after the San Diego Union-Tribune or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which in turn gave the Journal the freedom to focus on long-form, Page 1 "leders" in which reporters invested much of their time and energy, and by which they were judged and promoted. Erik Larson, Jane Mayer, Ron Suskind, James B. Stewart, Susan Faludi, Bryan Burrough, Alex Kotlowitz, Tony Horwitz and Geraldine Brooks are just some of the writers who launched their careers on Page 1 of the Journal.

At its best, in an epoch that future historians will view as a "golden age" for US newspapers, the Journal's front page excelled at various forms: explanatory reporting on politics, economics, science and social trends; deeply researched profiles of companies and executives; and investigative reporting. The Journal pursued General Motors, Mobil Oil, Occidental Petroleum, Texas Instruments, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Apple and hundreds of other corporations, which inspired Ralph Nader to proclaim that, aside from its "Pleistocene" editorial page, the Journal was "the most effective muckraking daily paper in the country.... the main reporter in our country of corporate crime." (Nader's words prompted Robert Sherrill to read an entire year of the Journal's corporate crime coverage for a Nation cover story in 1997.)

Finally, there was a remarkable tradition of immersion journalism: Alex Kotlowitz spent twelve weeks with a teenage boy and his family in the Henry Horner housing project in Chicago; Judith Valente lived for two months, around the clock, with a family whose son was wasting away from AIDS; Tony Horwitz took a job at a poultry plant in Mississippi to document the brutal conditions inside. This is not to say that Page 1 was flawless or that the Kotlowitz-type narratives were dominant. But they were never absent from the medley, and staffers clearly recall the words of former managing editor Paul Steiger, who led the paper from 1991 to 2007: "Go find stories with moral force."

As time went on, there was less money to pay for those kinds of stories. Under the Bancroft family, Dow Jones was a financial powerhouse until the late 1980s. But advertising revenue never fully recovered from the crash of 1987, and austerity measures were imposed. Ad revenue plunged again after 9/11, and Dow Jones bled $8 million in 2002. Ken Auletta reported in The New Yorker that 1,700 Dow Jones employees were fired between 2000 and 2003--a series of blows, some contend, that weakened the quality of the long-form writing on Page 1. Recalls Byron Calame: "I don't know how many years back, but people would say, 'If the price of the stock goes any lower, Murdoch will grab us.' That was not a remark anyone made with joy."

On December 13, 2007, Rupert Murdoch marched into the Journal newsroom to deliver a victory oration. "It is a new day in the history of this company," he said. "We've come here to expand it, to develop it and, where possible, to improve all of its products." He concluded with these words: "You better get back to work and make sure you're not scooped tomorrow."

Why the new emphasis on scoops, news and speed? One reason, it seems, has to do with Murdoch's stated goal of vanquishing the New York Times. Murdoch can't easily do that in New York City, where the Times has deep loyalty and penetration. But he is obviously keen to persuade educated, affluent readers in San Diego or Atlanta to switch from the Times to the Journal. (The hiring of Thomas Frank, who writes a political column every Wednesday, can certainly be viewed as a play for liberal-minded Times readers.) But it must be said that the news-oriented approach at the Journal is not Murdoch's innovation: faced with mounting competition in the 1970s and '80s, Journal editors allowed more news to appear on Page 1, a trend that accelerated after 9/11, when the paper unveiled a major redesign of its front page that emphasized color and readability; critics howled that the page had been "neutered."

A Murdochian business strategy that accelerates the news tempo of Page 1 has clearly resulted in fewer stories with "moral force." But the approach has yielded some rich results nevertheless. The Journal's coverage of the terrorist assault on Mumbai in late November, for example, was a deeply impressive display of talent and resources; it is unlikely that the old Journal, with its feature-writing orientation, could have equaled it. Other examples abound: on March 3, when federal prosecutors announced that the CIA had destroyed ninety-two videotapes of interrogations of Al Qaeda suspects, the Journal put the story smack in the middle of Page 1; the New York Times ran it on Page A16.

Even critics of editor Robert Thomson admit that the Journal has scored a large number of scoops in the past year. Consider a March 4 Page 1 story headlined Merrill's $10 Million Men, in which reporter Susanne Craig identified eleven Merrill Lynch executives who took home more than $10 million in 2008, a year when the firm's net loss was $27.6 billion. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo immediately issued subpoenas to several of the executives named in Craig's article.

Yet on many other occasions the news approach of the Journal seems bland and shopworn. On February 17, Page 1 had two photographs of Shoichi Nakagawa, the Japanese finance minister whose comatose demeanor at a G-7 meeting in Rome generated criticism. But the accompanying story, buried deep inside the paper, was scant and lackluster. For some Journal veterans, this amounts to an attenuation of the newspaper's historic identity. Referring to some recent Page 1 decisions, Calame says, "Putting a picture of an early play from the Super Bowl on top of Page 1, or putting A-Rod big and bold in the middle of the front page is not being unique--it's being like everyone else." (It should be noted that the Journal did not win any Pulitzers this year; the Times won five.)

Others welcome the new approach. "One of my complaints about my paper and the Times," says the Washington Post's Walter Pincus, "is that we print too many long stories. People need time to read newspapers. They don't spend a longer time on newspapers than they did forty years ago. It's still twenty to twenty-five minutes." Others raise the issue of quantity versus quality in the Journal. John Harwood, who now writes for the Times, spent sixteen years covering Washington for the Journal, during which time his mandate was not scoops and speed but analysis, brevity and explanatory reporting. "Now when I look at the Journal, I see too many stories," Harwood says. "And I yearn for some of the synthesizing that we used to do." For reporters at the paper today, he notes, "there is much more pressure to have more stories in the paper."

The new emphasis on breaking news, combined with the paper's historic expertise in business, should, theoretically, guarantee its supremacy in coverage of Wall Street corruption and the current financial implosion. In an interview with me, Ken Auletta described the Journal's recent economic reporting as "fearless." But the Journal's performance has also drawn criticism. Writing on the website of the Columbia Journalism Review (where I am a contributing editor), Dean Starkman argued on December 24 that the Journal's financial coverage, compared with that of the New York Times and Bloomberg News, is "too incremental, overly geared toward those already in the know, and too willing to trade arms-length scrutiny for access."

Starkman's view is that the Times, Bloomberg and the Journal have displayed different angles of vision: "The Journal... understands it is reporting the greatest financial story of our lives. Bloomberg and the Times understand...that they are also reporting the greatest-ever financial scandal." Reporters writing about scandals tend to punch harder and faster than reporters doing mere "stories." Consider how the Journal and the Times have chosen to cover Robert Rubin's tenure at Citigroup. In the November 23 Times, Eric Dash and Julie Creswell published a devastating exposé that highlighted Rubin's responsibility for Citigroup's woes. The piece, which ran on Page 1 of the Sunday edition, was written with unusual force, clarity and purpose. Six days later, the Journal ran a less detailed, more deferential article on the same subject.

For those who keep track, Starkman concluded with this scorecard: "The Journal has been beaten on Citi, Goldman, Paulson, the Federal Reserve bailout and AIG; it has won on the SEC, Lehman and Bear Stearns, and held its own on Fannie, Freddie, regulators and Greenspan." A number of current and former Journal staffers interviewed for this article supported Starkman's broad thesis: that the paper has, to some extent, ceded one of its main assets--the ability to undertake in-depth, explanatory reporting on the structural roots of the financial crisis--to Bloomberg News and the Times. Many Journal watchers cite a recent series in the Times titled "The Reckoning," in which the Dash/Creswell article appeared, as a model of what the old Journal would have aspired to.

"What was great about the Journal was that it allowed people to pursue their different abilities," says Joshua Prager, who recently accepted a buyout from the newspaper. "I'm good at writing long feature stories. I'm horrible at breaking news. They didn't make me do that after a while. That's why the paper worked." I'm sitting with Prager at a restaurant in Upper Manhattan. It's a gray morning in early March, and a cold rain is falling. Prager is a wiry, dark-haired man of 38 who, owing to a car accident, walks with a cane. In his post-Journal life, he intends to write a book about trauma and disability. What really matters now to Journal management, he says, is "breaking news and byline counts: the number of bylines that appear in a given year. So people are desperately churning out stories. You have incredibly talented reporters who could be writing beautiful pieces that are much more in depth. They are encouraged not to now." (Prager admits that some reporters "whose talents lie in breaking news and following stories" have done well under the Murdoch/Thomson regime.)

The classic "leder" is clearly dying, but it has not vanished. Recent standouts include Yaroslav Trofimov on the rise of nonviolent resistance in Kashmir, José de Córdoba on the encroachment of drug cartels into the vital Mexican city of Monterrey, Justin Scheck on drug addiction counselors who become heroin addicts and Mark Maremont on a private equity con man. One can add to this list, and yet close observers agree that the paper is publishing fewer long-form, narrative-driven articles. Those that are published tend to appear in the Weekend Edition, published on Saturday. Murdoch told Time in 2007 that the Journal's longer, in-depth pieces should be held for the weekend. And to a large extent this has been done. Yet the lively weekend edition is not flourishing. When I asked Journal spokesman Robert Christie about the Saturday paper, he replied, "It's expensive to run and deliver. It is not making the kind of money I think people had hoped it would make." This is cause for concern: if the Journal ever decided for financial reasons to eliminate the Weekend Edition, those stories could be marooned.

As for the long pieces that still do appear, a subtle and disturbing shift has taken place: most of them are "on the news." That makes sense, up to a point; newspaper readers want the latest information. But the most distinguished newspapers transcend the narrow boundaries of "news." The old Journal certainly did. By and large, the articles that brought the most honor to the pre-Murdoch Journal were conceived with little thought to the news cycle.

To insist on a news component for long-form and investigative reporting, as Murdoch and Thomson are doing, is to evince a shallow understanding of--and a slight appreciation for--those fragile genres. One of the finest Journal leders I've read is "Life and Death," Gary Fields's 2005 profile of Richard "Grasshopper" Leggett, a 53-year-old carpenter at Angola Prison in Louisiana, who builds seven-foot coffins for his fellow inmates. Sentences like this bring the piece to life: "At Angola, funerals are elaborate affairs, with hand-made coffins pulled to graves by horse-drawn carriages, in rites conducted almost entirely by inmates." In its emotional power, its tight, radiant language and its wide sweep, "Life and Death" reveals more about prison life than twenty ordinary newspaper stories. There isn't much room for sparkling, poignant features about prison carpenters in today's Journal.

But do Journal reporters of Fields's caliber still feel they can do high-quality work outside that tradition? It's a knotty question I attempted to answer by contacting them. One of the first Journal reporters I called was Jonathan Kaufman, who, over the course of a long career, has produced splendid leders on race, immigration and education: his work embodies the finest qualities of the old Journal. But Kaufman is leaving the Journal for Bloomberg News; he declined to speak with The Nation. I went on to contact twenty-nine staffers, including the most distinguished reporters and editors; not one would talk on the record, and only a few agreed to speak off the record. Fear is stalking the hallways of the Journal, which will soon vacate its Lower Manhattan office for new digs at News Corp headquarters in Midtown.

Another writer I attempted to reach was Lucette Lagnado, who, since 1996, has covered a crucial beat for the Journal: hospitals, the poor, the uninsured. One of her most vivid and outstanding pieces, which clearly took months of work and which generated Congressional action, appeared in 2007 under this headline: Prescription Abuse Seen in U.S. Nursing Homes; Powerful Antipsychotics Used to Subdue Elderly; Huge Medicaid Expense. I was curious about Lagnado's current situation at the paper: on February 20 she wrote a meager article about falling prices for luxury real estate in the Hamptons. And on April 4 she produced a leder on the parental duties of the elderly during the economic crisis--one that was noticeably less ambitious in scope than her usual investigative fare. But Lagnado declined to talk to me: "I shall not be available for your story," she wrote in an e-mail. Over the next year or two, Lagnado's fate--and those of several dozen old-school, independent-minded reporters like her--will reveal much about Murdoch's Journal. Says Prager, "A tremendous number of reporters there are frustrated now."

That frustration could mount in the coming months. On March 19 Thomson sent the staff a memo regarding the integration of the Journal with Dow Jones Newswires, which competes with Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters in the lucrative financial news market. In the past, reporters were encouraged to produce material for the Newswires, but now it is mandatory. As Thomson wrote, "Even a headstart of a few seconds is priceless for a commodities trader or a bond dealer.... henceforth all Journal reporters will be judged, in significant part, by whether they break news for the Newswires." With its emphasis on speed over analysis, and its insistence that every reporter fall into line, Thomson's memo might well be seen, in the years to come, as one more nail in the coffin of long-form writing at the Journal.

One striking consequence of the meltdown of the US newspaper industry has been the semi-rehabilitation of Rupert Murdoch. A boogeyman who was vilified for attempting to purchase Dow Jones is being extolled for his commitment to ink, paper, printing presses and a well-staffed newsroom. Talking to people about Murdoch's Journal, one hears countless variations on this theme: "Well, at least Rupert's investing in it..." The Media Baron Who Loves Print was the headline of a recent New York Times article about the Australian press lord. Journal spokesman Robert Christie puts it this way: "He's largely viewed, whether you like him or not, as someone who has invested in and is saving the paper."

Perhaps so. But admirers of the Journal should not overlook what has been lost or ignore Murdoch's heavy hand. In early 2008 he forced out the paper's well-regarded editor, Marcus Brauchli, in a way that circumvented a "special committee" established as a condition of the sale of Dow Jones to News Corp. Part of the committee's mandate was to preserve the Journal's editorial independence, for which it was given "rights of approval" on the hiring and firing of the managing editor. But Murdoch ignored the committee (whose members received annual salaries of $100,000) and, in the words of Slate press critic Jack Shafer, reduced its members to "a set of high-paid flunkies."

Brauchli, now executive editor of the Washington Post, was replaced by Thomson, the US managing editor of the Financial Times before he took over the Times of London. In public Thomson is quick to praise his boss: "Rupert is passionate about newspapers; he's passionate about news," he told a group of journalism students in 2008. "What we are experiencing at the Wall Street Journal is the articulation of that passion."

First-rate editors not only praise their publishers in public but challenge them behind closed doors. Is Thomson strong and confident enough to challenge Murdoch? On that score, Journal watchers are not optimistic. "I don't think there is any possibility that Thomson will stand up to Murdoch on any major issue," says former Journal executive editor Fred Taylor. "That's why he's in that job." Time will tell if Thomson, like his predecessors Taylor, Norman Pearlstine and Paul Steiger, is interested in stories with "moral force," or if he is merely Murdoch's caretaker and custodian.

Some staffers were jolted by Thomson's announcement, in November, that the paper's new deputy editor in chief would be Gerard Baker, a veteran of the BBC, the Financial Times and the Times of London, where he served, most recently, as US editor and (conservative) columnist. Writing in the Times of London on November 7, Baker lamented, "An Obama administration and a solidly Democratic Congress represent the most significant and unwelcome leftward tilt in American politics in at least a generation." Some Journal staff have circulated, with amusement and dismay, a YouTube clip originating from Fox News, in which Baker offers a puerile commentary on the candidacy of Barack Obama. Says one staffer with a sigh: "It seems doubtful they conducted an exhaustive nationwide search to find the best qualified candidate for the number-two job in the Journal's newsroom. What does it tell you that someone like Baker was appointed?"

Overt bias in the Journal's news columns has been rare. But a handful of recent ledes and headlines raise eyebrows. Consider the opening sentence of the paper's Page 1 story on January 29, concerning the stimulus package: "The House passed an $819 billion tax-and-spending bill Wednesday..." Or this Page 1 headline from February 26: $318 Billion Tax Hit Proposed. (The New York Times, in contrast, chose the headline Obama to Call for Higher Tax on Top Earners.) If Paul Steiger or Marcus Brauchli were still at the helm of the Journal, no one would fret about bias in the news columns. However, a fundamental question remains about the new regime: are Murdoch, Thomson and Baker truly committed to the old model of unbiased news reporting, or might they be tempted to embrace a more politicized, pugnacious and populist version of the news?

"I'm a little puzzled by the Journal's evolving identity," Times executive editor Bill Keller told me in an e-mail. "Some days the front page is mostly general-interest news, like a cross between the Times and USA Today. Then the next day you get a front like today [March 12], when the lead story ("EBay Retreats in Web Retailing") is clearly aimed at core business readers. Some days the tone is FT (a top-of-the-page curtain raiser on the G-20 summit); some days it is tabloid populist (lashing the million-dollar-bonus recipients at Merrill). If the paper has made up its mind what it wants to be, it's not clear to me. Maybe they hope we'll all keep reading just to see how they resolve their identity crisis."

Journal staffers, too, are uncertain about the paper's overall direction. "Because of the election and the financial crisis, and the daily crush of big, breaking news, the last six months were not typical," says one reporter. "The test will come when all that settles down, when we have a less tumultuous news cycle. At that point we'll see how things shake out." A former reporter, sounding like Eugene Roberts circa 2008, is more bitingly cynical: "This country will soon have two USA Todays and one New York Times." (Some of the bloated color graphics that have recently appeared in the Journal do call to mind USA Today or the New York Post.) But the prevailing sentiment among Journal staff is relief that, at a time when thousands of newspaper jobs have been liquidated, they are still employed. Says one Journal reporter: "Is it better to be on a sinking ship, or one that's been captured by pirates? While other newspapers are going down, for now we're still afloat."