One man, an immigrant who came to this country with great hopes, is asked what skills he has learned in that plant. He has to think for a moment. “There is one thing, yes,” he says finally. “I can tell a chicken gizzard from a chicken liver. I can do that well.”
He pauses again and picks at a calloused finger. “Please tell me,” he says, “what a man may do with that.”
It’s clear from conversations with reporters on a range of beats, throughout the newsroom, that the emphasis on breaking news, coupled with the shrinking space for stories, means the paper is less committed to this sort of journalism. “We’re getting down to four hundred/five hundred words,” says one reporter. “You can barely introduce what you’re talking about. What’s the point?” Within a week in March 2007, the Journal published a dozen stories over two thousand words in the front section; within the same week in March 2009, only three stories exceeded that length.
Even if the space were available, the pressure to constantly churn out news makes it extremely difficult to produce articles like Horwitz’s. “I don’t have time,” says one award-winning reporter. “I’m just going to press conferences all the time.” He recalls one pre-Murdoch memo explaining how to write an A-hed: the reporter was advised to build in an extra half-day for interviews that she might not actually use, as this is where she might find her most surprising material. “That memo wouldn’t even make sense if you showed it to a new reporter today,” the reporter says, “because the whole thing is supposed to be done in half a day!”
“Doing The Math to Find the Good Jobs,” a January 26, 2009, story on the nation’s best and worst jobs, provides a depressing contrast with Horwitz’s series. The news hook was a new study on the topic, not original reporting. It provided a list, and some quotes from the people who hold the best and worst jobs. It is forgettable. It sheds no light on the nature of present-day capitalism. How could it? It was reported and written from a desk.
News Corp. employees have described Robert Thomson as “cold,” so I was pleasantly surprised when I got him on the phone to find him charming, and passionate about newspapers. But he regards the culture of the Journal with, at best, tough love. “Certain U.S. newspapers,” Thomson says, “have been designed for journalists rather than for readers.” With a chuckle, he avoided saying whether he’s talking about the Journal, but it was obvious that he was. Journalists, he says, too often choose “self-indulgence over readability. If a reader is used to the Web, he has developed a ruthless functionality in reading—just clicking on what he’s interested in.” Turning to a newspaper, Thomson says, that reader then “confronts this Neanderthal product. Taking four paragraphs to get to the point is too long. Where is the editorial empathy?”
Thomson defended his emphasis on breaking news: “A newspaper without news is like a Prius without a battery.” He insisted, if tepidly, that there is a place for long-form journalism at the paper, but it has to “make people turn to the inside, because it’s clear that not every reader does.” He notes that the Journal is publishing more series lately, to provide depth without sacrificing readability, as well as publishing a long essay on the front page of the Weekend section. “Look, if it’s in there now, there’s a place for it,” Thomson says with a laugh, pointing to his paper’s “five-thousand words on Raoul Wallenberg.” Indeed, the February 28 saga about the Swede who disappeared in Russian captivity during World War II was neither breaking news nor brief. But there’s a problem with this example: the reporter, Joshua Prager, recently left the paper because that very story was cut down from a three-part series to just the single piece. It made him realize that he could no longer do the kind of work he cared about at the Journal: “I knew that it was time for me to leave the paper,” Prager wrote in a farewell manifesto to his colleagues. “The worship of bylines and word counts and all that is ‘urgent’ has doubtless stifled the boundless creativity of the Journal staff.” Prager noted that Thomson had observed that some page-one stories had the “‘gestation of a llama.’ Mine certainly did. The paper and I were no longer a good fit.”