Has the 'Journal' Lost Its Soul?
"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.