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


Has the 'Journal' Lost Its Soul?

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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.)

About the Author

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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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.

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