Thomson’s challenge, then, is to translate the greatness of Kilgore’s Journal, and its financial success, to the realities of the twenty-first century. Given the way both reading habits and news delivery have changed since 1967, that won’t be easy. He’s following in Kilgore’s footsteps in one way: Kilgore advised John Hay Whitney, days before Whitney bought the New York Herald Tribune, that to survive in a competitive environment he needed to “make stories accessible to the average reader.” But if, as Thomson seems to suggest, accessibility today means stories that are short and ephemeral—the kind of news that is distinguished only by being ubiquitous—then the Journal is destined to become just another business-news service.
Thomson might want to consider another bit of advice that Kilgore gave Whitney: make your publication distinctive. Specifically, he wrote, editing it “with one eye on the Times was insufficient and ultimately self-defeating.” Funny that he mentioned The New York Times, as competition with the Times is a driving force at the Journal now, leading to an increasing focus on general-interest news. A recent story on gay marriage, for instance, took up more space than any of the business stories surrounding it. Three bylines appeared on a February weather story. The Journal has beefed up arts coverage, and even has a reporter covering metro New York. While the Money & Investing section remains mostly unchanged, fewer business stories run in the front section—and those that do are often unspectacular. Insiders agree—and it’s clear from reading the paper—that the Journal is investing less in business reporting because it is investing in news.
But this slapdash approach doesn’t always work so well—like now, for instance, during the current financial crisis. While the Journal has excelled in some areas—its coverage of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns comes to mind—it was caught short in others, notably the aig bailout and coverage of Henry Paulson’s Treasury department. Worse, the paper has failed to explicate the big questions—what happened and why—ceding the role of authoritative explainer and investigator to, ironically, The New York Times, which has a business staff one-seventh the size of the Journal’s. With all the focus on the factual scoop at the new Journal, says one reporter of his managers, “I don’t think they realize the value of the conceptual scoop, which is so important in business news. When you present a new idea and back it up with numbers and the reader says, ‘Holy crap, I didn’t know that before.’”
No one I interviewed suggests that before Murdoch the Journal was a journalistic Valhalla. Indeed, some of the reporters’ comments for this article echo complaints about the prior regime of Paul Steiger, who was editor from 1991 to 2007. Yet there’s no doubt that Murdoch has expedited unfortunate trends, and executed them with special ruthlessness. Perhaps more important, he has dismantled the newsroom culture that took pride in doing what no other outlet was doing: explaining modern capitalism, its triumphs and failures, its brilliance and cruelty, in ways that went beyond the data and the deals.
Many analysts were shocked by the $5.6 billion Murdoch paid to acquire the Journal, but any accountant knows that a company’s good name can be worth more than its assets. The quality of the journalism published in the Journal determines its value; it’s the reason people around the world pay for breaking news on its Web site when they can get free news elsewhere. Everyone who cares about newspapers should be pleased that readership at the Journal is up, and there’s no doubt some of Thomson’s changes have helped. But to sustain that success, it would be wise to protect some of the traditions that made the Journal great. Two thousand and nine is, of course, different from the days of Barney Kilgore, but is resurrecting the wire-service model really the answer?