A WSJ ‘A-hed’ covers the same topic twice

Tapping on the glass of a barometer for quality

Back when News Corp. took over Dow Jones & Co., which some of us didn’t think was a particularly good idea, a lot of close Wall Street Journal-watchers looked to the “A-hed” as a barometer of the paper’s editorial health.

The A-hed is the apropos-of-nothing feature than has run on Page One of the Journal since 1943, when the legendary (in some circles) Bernard Kilgore, then all of 34 years old, was revamping the paper from a daily blizzard of random financial data—the CNBC of its day—into the literate storytelling machine it would later become. Did I mention that Kilgore’s revolutionary bet on quality—he invented, among other things, the in-depth “leders”—helped to propel the Journal from a measly 30,000 circulation and precarious financial health to more than a million by the time he died 25 years later on its way to becoming for a time the most popular daily in country and a cash-machine to boot? Well, it did.

Is there maybe a lesson in there for the digital age? Nah, didn’t think so.

Anyway, the A-hed (named for the shape of the headline back in the day) could be the best part of the paper. My favorite was one about absinthe in Prague(1) in which the reporter accidentally sets a table on fire. Someone else mentioned the one about the otter hospital.(2) They were so popular the best were anthologized; here are a few headlines:

—“Nothing Personal, We Sue All Our Friends,” October 1994.

—“Not Your Mother’s Cemetery,” March 1998.

—“Pity the Toad,” March 1994.

—“Ruff! Ruff! Ruffage! Here, Rover/Have a Nice Bean Sprout,” October 1993.

—“Roasted Porcupine and Basil, With a Hint of Tire Mark,” March 1995.

—“But Will the Klingons Actually Understand Deuteronomy?” June 1994.

—“The Steak Tender, the Soup Positively Rodentine,” March 1995.

—“Charles Atlas, Grandpa,” June 1969.

Yes, the ‘90s were good for A-heds.

But the form was so frothy, so off-the-point, so willfully out of step with the digital times, it seemed ripe for the ax under Rupert Murdoch’s regime, which has other priorities and sneers at the time and effort it takes to produce this kind of thing.

Recently, the paper ran an amusing story, with a dateline in Austin, about how stuff confiscated Transportation Security Administration at airport checkpoints turn up for sale, including odd items, like snow globes and the like.

The headline:

Shopping for a Rolling Pin, Scissors or a Bat? This Auction Is for You Warehouses Sell Confiscated TSA Items; Good News for Snow Globe Owners

Good topic. But the paper basically covered it back in 2007, datelined Tucker, Georgia:

Carry-On Items Taken at Airports Find Happy Homes: Machetes Sold Cheap, Bargains on Box Cutters, Deals on Louisville Sluggers

The stories are both well-reported and are entirely different versions, but basically about pretty much the same thing, although the latest version reports the new news that the TSA is relenting a bit and allowing snow globes to go through, which is, indeed, funny.

A big deal? No. But it is a reminder of just how hard, how very hard, it is to be good and original, day after day, year after year. It’s a huge commitment of time and money that readers can’t see, but can only sense. It requires a need for redundancy you wouldn’t believe. Ideas are hard to come by and fall through constantly. I once got a tip about unlicensed mariachi bands in Mexico City constantly on the run from authorities. Rogue mariachi bands—A-hed gold, Jerry! Turns out, NPR had already done it. Doh.

Quality is just an argument, and one for another day. But the thing to remember about newspaper quality is that there is no metric for it—unlike quantity, which has always been easy to measure and now can be tracked to the last keystroke. And if you think clicks are a quality measure, well that’s another discussion but here’s an excellent place to start.

And in a bureaucracy what can be measured usually wins.

Rebecca Blumenstein, the WSJ’s page one editor, tells me in a phone conversation that A-heds remain a top priority:

“If anything, A-heds are better than they’ve ever been,” she says. “They are a hallmark of the Journal and continually offer original, light-hearted angles on unexpected topics. They’re regularly among the most popular stories that we publish, so clearly readers agree.”

Okay. But, as is usually the case, this goes way beyond the best efforts of working pros. These are questions of resource allocation and newsroom incentives—the usual institutional questions. Just because these stories are supposed to be light and easy to read doesn’t mean they come cheaply or are easy to do. They don’t and they’re not.

To me, some lately can come across as pretty ordinary news features. I can’t say I loved this one about Toyota’s CEO test-driving cars, which had a bit of PR-y vibe to it; or this one about a zombie-themed obstacle-course race—not as much fun as it sounds; or this one about a bike ride in Iowa organized so people can stop to eat a lot.

On the other hand, some are killer:

WASHINGTON—In a Pentagon hallway hung an austere portrait of a Navy man lost at sea in 1908, with his brass buttons, blue-knit uniform and what looks like meticulously blow-dried hair.

Wait. Blow-dried hair?

This one about people, including a hard-luck carpet salesman, who turned down a chance to buy Facebook back in the day, is super. Also difficult to resist:
“Who Needs a WeedWacker When You Can Use a Scythe?”
; the ones about the gong business” (“They Strike a Chord With Car Dealers, Yogis and Gastroenterologists”); the the pasta architect; early New Year’s Eve reveling, particularly the bit about the six-foot peep dropping at 5:15 p.m.; word lovers becoming actual lovers, for Valentine’s Day, and plenty of others.

Decide for yourself about yesterday’s on how the CIA can do everything but build a new gym for itself. In fact, check in with the A-hed often and read it critically.

The thing about long-form newspaper writing, particularly off-the-news features, is it really has to justify itself. In other words, the story has to be more than plausible. It has to to be actually and obviously good. It can’t be “meh.”

Otherwise, pretty soon, someone’s going to ask, why are we doing these anyway?

And no one will be able to remember.

1. “In Prague, Absinthe Makes Heart Fonder, And Head Cloudier —- It Remains Illegal Elsewhere, But Enthusiasts Are Blind To Its Advertised Dangers,” Dec. 24, 1996.

2. “Heartbreaking Fight Unfolds in Hospital For Valdez Otters; Rescuers Battle to Save Them With Antitoxins, Prayers; Otter 76 Strains to Breathe,” Apr 20, 1989.

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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.