A Bureau Where They Reported Stories to Death

The hue, cry and gnashing of teeth over News Corp.’s takeover of The Wall Street Journal’s parent a couple of years ago mystified a lot of people, many of whom wondered what was so great about the paper that it had to be preserved in amber forever?

They had a point. The paper had drifted. And so Rupert Murdoch’s apologists, like BusinessWeek’s Jon Fine, could sniff that it didn’t matter, that other outlets could do what the Journal did (wrong), while Vanity Fair’s Michael Wolff could echo sentiments expressed by Murdoch and his lieutenants that the journalists at my old paper were self-absorbed elites who had fallen in love with their own virtuosity, that they were essentially writing for each other and didn’t give a damn about readers. (Wolff expands on his preposterous Journal-reporters-as-elitist-snobs argument in his surprisingly inert biography of Murdoch, which shows its own readers no mercy whatsoever.)

People who opposed the takeover, who knew the score, were forced to make the subtle and elitist-sounding argument that what was at stake was, and you will excuse the expression before lunch, quality journalism, meaning the kind that took hours and hours and days and days to report, with the schmoozing, the pleading, the wheedling, the begging sources, the flying to meet them, feeding them expensive dinners, threatening their families, whatever. And then there are the hours and hours and days and days it takes to write and write and shape and shape and rewrite and rewrite, etc. It’s kind of like a blog post, but harder. The main people who benefit from this kind of journalism are readers, of course, but, sure, there’s plenty of glory to go around for the reporters, not to mention the institution and its shareholders, who benefited from the value created each time a great story appeared on page one. The executive who understood that best was Barney Kilgore, the Journal’s postwar leader who deftly deployed great journalism, and very little else, to create more value than all the current reigning media mopes put together. The man jacked the Journal’s circulation from 33,000 to a million. How about them apples? Read all about it in Dick Tofel’s biography.

All this comes to mind with the announcement yesterday by the Journal’s top editor Robert Thomson (h/t: Chris Roush) that the paper was closing its Boston bureau, which over the years has produced some of the Journal’s best work, which is to say, American journalism’s best work. To his credit Thomson acknowledged the significance of the move to his staff:

“That there has been truly great reporting under the generalship of Gary Putka out of Boston over many, many years is not in doubt. But we remain in the midst of a profound downturn in advertising revenue and thus must think the unthinkable.”

The announcement created a ripple among Journal alumni, who zinged emails around lamenting the move and sharing notes on the fine reporters who had passed through there. For those in the know, it’s an impressive list: Ron Suskind, Dan Golden, Amy Dockser Marcus, Geeta Anand, Mark Maremont, James Bandler, Charles Forelle and Steve Stecklow, David Wessel, Dana Milbank, David Armstrong, Caleb Solomon, Larry Ingrassia, who runs the Times business pages, among others. Most everyone on that list has a Pulitzer.

One of them, Bandler, now at Fortune, wrote a nice appreciation here.

But that’s insider stuff.

For readers, there are a couple things to think about.

First, the Boston bureau, led by its longtime chief, Putka, had a reputation as a stiff-necked place that saw itself as something of a bastion of long-form depth reporting and of resistance to pressures of the hamster wheel, which demands the constant chasing of incremental news to the detriment of the great stuff.

It earned a nickname in New York, I am told: “Gdansk.”

Second, at least two Boston bureau reporters, and I am told there were more, were among the 30 or so staffers who wrote letters to the Bancrofts, the former controlling shareholders of the Journal’s parent (and, it turns out, a feckless bunch), urging them not to sell to News Corp.

I’m not suggesting that this closing was some kind of retribution. It is merely to say the signers understood that, as someone told me: “The kind of work the bureau was famous for would not flourish under the new regime.” Simple as that. This was the argument I made at the time.

Third, for an idea of what this all means it’s only necessary to read at random work that came out of there. The common thread is that it was all reported to death. Take something from Dan Golden’s Pulitzer-winning series on affirmative action for children of (the real) elites in college admissions. This one, for instance, talked about how middle-class students with better academic records at Groton were denied entry to elite universities, while children of the rich with lesser records got in. Check out how this piece, using internal Groton documents, goes after, get this, Robert Bass’s daughter. I emphasize things that show how well-reported this sensitive story is:

One striking anomaly: Of nine Groton students listed as applicants to Stanford that year, Margaret Bass was the only one admitted. Ms. Bass’s grades placed her 40th in her Groton class, according to the Groton document. She had an SAT score of 1220, lower than those of seven of the eight other Stanford applicants. By contrast, almost 90% of Stanford freshmen rank in the top 10% of their high school class, while 75% have SAT scores of 1360 or better.
But Ms. Bass had an edge: Her father, Texas tycoon Robert Bass, was chairman of Stanford’s board and had given $25 million to the university in 1992. Mr. Bass has a degree from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He and his wife, Anne, are both Groton trustees.
Stanford officials and Martin London, a lawyer for the Bass family, said Ms. Bass’s record on the Groton document was inaccurate, but declined to be specific. Another person familiar with Ms. Bass’s record at Groton said her data, as listed on the document, were correct. Mr. London added that Ms. Bass compiled a “stellar record” at Stanford and graduated with honors last year. Ms. Bass didn’t respond to several requests for comment. Her roommate at Groton, Claire Abernathy, said Ms. Bass is “a great writer,” and “I’m sure her admissions essay was fantastic.”

I’m sure. Many examples are available on the Pulitzer site. Just search under the author’s name.

The trouble with great reporting is that when it doesn’t happen you never know it.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.