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.
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.