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Has the 'Journal' Lost Its Soul? | The Nation

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Has the 'Journal' Lost Its Soul?

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AVENGING ANGELS

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com), a contributing writer to The Nation,  is at work on a book about the New York...

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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.

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