Another bright spot at the new Journal is its Web site, which is more readable and relevant than before. Many of the blogs have a strong following, and it’s easy to see why—one tracks out-of-work mbas in their quest to rebuild their lives; it offers readers the gossipy schadenfreude of seeing privileged people struggling, but also insight into the psychology of unemployment and the practicalities of the job search. Mostly, however, the site is a dependable source of breaking news. Readership of wsj.com, Thomson says, has been up at least 84 percent year-on-year in recent months, with more than a million paid subscribers and 23 million unique visitors a month. (Nielsen Online counts just 6.8 million unique visitors, however.)
Murdoch and Thomson clearly love newspapers, and are working hard to make the Journal viable. At a time when most newspapers are either hemorrhaging readers, or folding altogether, the Journal’s readership has increased. Even sales of the print newspaper rose 2 to 3 percent over the past year, according to Thomson, although this growth must be qualified a bit, given the heavily discounted subscriptions the Journal was selling before September, and given the fact that many financial-news outlets are gaining readers during these difficult days. Furthermore, the entire move-the-needle case should be considered in the context of the $8.4 billion in write-downs that News Corp. recently took, $3 billion of them in the print division. Still, Thomson insists that “the decline of once-great papers doesn’t mean the readers are disappearing.” He’s got evidence to support his bullish position. In a March 23 memo, Thomson cited a reader-tracking survey that had been in use at the Journal for years, remarking, “Former subscribers are now twice as likely to resubscribe. There is no doubt that revenue remains challenged, but there is a large and growing audience for our content.”
Central to this move-the-needle strategy is the elevation of breaking news above the more considered coverage that has long been the Journal’s trademark. It’s a controversial move within the paper. Theo Francis, a former Journal reporter who left last summer for Business Week, observes, “There’s been this creeping tendency for the paper to be about what happened yesterday, rather than telling people about things they didn’t know, and would never know if the Journal didn’t tell them.” Francis and others note, in fairness, that this trend predates Murdoch, but there’s no doubt it has escalated under his leadership. On March 19, Thomson sent a memo to the staff urging more cooperation with the company’s newswires: “A breaking corporate, economic or political news story is of crucial value to our Newswires subscribers. Even a headstart of a few seconds is priceless for a commodities trader or bond dealer—that same story can be repurposed for different audiences but its value diminishes with the passing of time. Given that revenue reality, henceforth all Journal reporters will be judged on whether they break news for the Newswires.”
Something had to give. In the past, Journal editors would teach new hires how to be reporters—not urge them to feed the wire. “Young reporters here now don’t know what they’re missing,” says one newsroom veteran. “I remember my first leder. I gave it to my bureau chief, and it came back completely marked up: ‘Needs more color! What were the streets like? Were they paved?’” (“Leder” refers to the long, heavily reported stories originating on page one.) The same reporter points to a March 2009 A-hed—a quirky, page-one feature—that was reported entirely over the phone. “That would have been unheard of in the past,” he says.
Other forms of institutional support for deep reporting are disappearing, too. In March, Journal management closed the paper’s library, which had provided research help to reporters. And a number of reporters told me that the decision last summer to get rid of the copy desk not only allowed more typos into print, but also cost the paper an important line of defense against errors of fact and logic. In January and February 2009, the paper published 194 corrections, a 36 percent increase from the same period in 2007, before Murdoch bought the paper.
Then there is the matter of space. The Wall Street Journal has, for years, been known for long-form articles like Tony Horwitz’s 9 to Nowhere series (which won a Pulitzer in 1995), in which he explored the dead-end, mind-numbing, and often disgusting nature of six of the 1990s’ fastest-growing jobs. Horwitz learned about some of these jobs by doing them. I remember one about a poultry plant as if it were a documentary film: his co-workers collapsing with fatigue, or stumbling, onto sodden piles of chicken fat and skin.