The abrupt resignation of Marcus Brauchli as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal is surprising even to those of us who saw News Corp.’s takeover of the Journal’s parent as a journalistic disaster in the making.
There will be some who say the resignation of an editor doesn’t matter or that it is a good thing since we live in the best of all possible worlds. In fact, Brauchli’s resignation is a billboard-sized sign that the world’s leading financial publication is abandoning the qualities that made it great in the first place.
If Murdoch’s bid for Dow Jones & Co. was the beginning of the end of the Journal as we knew it, as I wrote when the bid was unveiled a year ago, Brauchli’s exit is the end of the beginning of the end.
It is true that, for the last few months, and even before Rupert Murdoch’s company closed on the deal in December, the Journal had zigged and zagged but ultimately lurched toward changes that I didn’t see as being particularly good:
- a tilt toward general news, especially politics, which sounds good but pulls resources away from the Journal’s core business and economics coverage and into areas well-covered elsewhere;
- an attempt to make the Journal newsier, which also sounds good, but in fact tends to elevate more run-of-the-mill business stories to prominence, leaving less time and resources for fully developed features and investigations that are off the news.
- an abandonment of anecdotal ledes on page one, which seems like inside baseball but in fact is like taking a chisel from a carpenter’s toolbox, leaving only the hammer and power drill.
Again, none of those changes are good from a journalism point of view because they all tend to tilt the Journal toward more commodity-type offerings—things you can get anywhere.
On the other hand, one could at least see potential value in any or all of the changes—I mean, long-winded anecdotal ledes on newspaper stories had become the subject of parody for a reason. Sometimes you had to turn page A17 just to find out that the guy you had just spent six paragraphs getting to know was dead—hit by a train at a crossing where the signals were broken because federal railway regulators had curtailed inspections because of budget cuts needed to fund an alternative-energy boondoggle involving some prominent campaign contributor. I mean, I understand the problem.
And news is good. I like news, even political news.
And no one should argue that the Journal didn’t need a change. Murdoch had shrewdly caught the Journal at a low ebb, journalistically as well as financially. The bid came just after Paul Steiger, the managing editor since 1991, had announced that Brauchli would be his successor and just before Brauchli had actually taken over.
I wrote at the time that under Steiger, and his deputy, Dan Hertzberg, both former bosses of mine, the Journal’s editorial focus had narrowed, the page-one editor’s job had been downgraded, and the paper had grown more bureaucratic. The culture was comically Byzantine; dissent was virtually nonexistent; page one had fallen sharply, in my view, from heights achieved under James B. Stewart and John Brecher.
And so over the past few months, it was hard to argue against change, and I didn’t particularly want to. It was also difficult to know which changes were imposed by Murdoch and the publisher he appointed, Robert Thomson, and which were initiatives by Brauchli or his page-one editor, Mike Williams.
Brauchli, a former Beijing bureau chief and Journal staffer for twenty-four years, was a popular choice to succeed Steiger. His appointment alone raised morale. Some staffers had reported a new energy coursing through the paper, even as they bridled at some of the editing on page one.
I certainly didn’t like some of it. I thought the writing lately has been flat as a pancake, especially the ledes, the stories’ beginnings, even on stories that turned out to be good.
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