A Heavy Blow to The Wall Street Journal

An editor's departure is a big deal

Anyone who thinks the departure of Alix M. Freedman, the WSJ’s Page One editor, a twenty-seven-year Journal mainstay, and winner of one of the more storied Pulitzers in my old paper’s storied past, is inside-baseball for media types is dead wrong.

It’s a devastating blow to that institution, the great story-telling factory that revolutionized American journalism and became the great popularizer for the middle class of things financial, economic, and corporate.

Think I’m overstating things? I’m not.

The Journal has suffered a series of such blows, some obvious, some not, since the takeover by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (and, truth be told, a good bit of bleeding since before the takeover, too). Established professionals have defected, lately in droves. Dodgy political tampering began showing up in the news pages. Stories were shortened and productivity demands increased, part of the general hamsterization of the news media, a concept the FCC picked up on in its big study in June. The number of Page One “leders,” the in-depth, long-form stories that were the paper’s hallmark, was halved, while the elite Page One operation was itself deconstructed. Generally speaking, speed and brevity are in, depth and narrative, out.

This is to say nothing of the reputational blows it has suffered as part of the News Corp. empire.

Freedman is best known for her Pulitzer-winning series on the tobacco industry, the highlights of which can be read here. The series used internal document obtained from tobacco companies to devastating effect, showing, among other things, that companies knew all along that nicotine was addictive and even likened it to cocaine; they knew “lite” cigarettes were as dangerous as regular ones, even as they said otherwise; that companies enhanced nicotine delivery by adding ammonia-based compounds, and much more. The series (reported, it should be said, amid intense competition from other news organizations) helped lay the groundwork for the restructuring of that entire industry, including the 1998 “master settlement agreement” with 46 states.

And tobacco was really only the highlight of a long string of investigative and narrative stories—into the rent-to-own business, alcohol sales in inner cities, a secretive company that dominated the market for cheap handguns—that, safe to say, put Freedman on the top wrung of Journal staffers, probably all-time, which is saying something.

Freedman would go on to become the standards editor, which is sort of the conscience of the paper, then in April was named to head Page One, where she lasted all of four months before her departure today (and yes, that’s weird).

But it’s more than a single journalist, but an entire journalism culture that’s in play. To understand, you have to back up a bit—to 1941.

When wunderkind Bernard Kilgore took over as managing editor of the Journal at the ripe old age of 32, the paper did some nice business reporting, but it was narrow and formulaic, a dreary pastiche of incremental business stories—mostly government or corporate reports—arranged haphazardly on page one and throughout the paper and aimed solely at investors. The paper’s circulation, in the mid-30,000s, hadn’t recovered since the Crash of ’29 (it was never that big; 50,000 was the peak) and its owner, Dow Jones, was on fumes financially.

Kilgore’s genius was to throw out the stale editorial model—the inverted pyramid, all that crap—and create a system that would be able to produce two long-form stories a day and take readers into corners of the economy they would otherwise never have seen: a salad-oil swindle in New Jersey, Lyndon Johnson’s wife’s broadcasting empire, slave-labor camps in Houston. Eventually, of course, Journal reporters slipped the bounds of business reporting itself—or expanded them, one could argue—and ventured further and further into American society: the secret shame of illiterates, Cabrini Green, chicken plants, you name it.

To do these kinds of stories, two a day, day after day, Kilgore and his lieutenants created an organization-within-an-organization, Page One, that was autonomous, anomalous, and imperious, but, all in all, produced a pretty talented bunch of journalists over the years.

What Kilgore did was bet on quality: storytelling, depth, context—all those windy, high-minded things that sound tedious but are actually what make journalism worth reading. In effect, he bet on readers, and they rewarded him, in spades. When Kilgore died, in 1967, Journal circulation had topped a million and was on its way to becoming in the 1970s the country’s biggest-circulation paper, at 1.7 million. It’s about two million today.

It was always a hothouse flower, this odd journalism culture, and to be sure, it had its ups and downs. It needed subsequent generations to maintain it and build on it.

The fact is, the wrenching sale of the Journal’s parent in 2007 in effect grafted a News Corp. head on the Journal’s body. The graft never really took, and ever since a web of senior editors from the ancien regime has struggled to maintain old standards and practices while adapting to the new leadership. Freedman was part of that, my sense, a key part.

Of course the Journal still does great stuff—thanks in large part to this legacy—and will in the future. But there is a point of no return, and we’re fast approaching it.

I’d say Freedman’s departure could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but it feels more like an anvil.

And another thing: The Journal’s loss may be Reuters’s gain, but this isn’t a zero-sum game. The unraveling of the Journal’s storytelling machine is a huge loss for the public. Reuters, in the end is, a wire, from an entirely different journalism tradition. It may one day be something else, but it has a long way to go.

The Journal really was unique. Maybe it can still be. Maybe not.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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. Tags: ,