The Wall Street Journal’s new managing editor, Marcus Brauchli, made some changes in the newsroom that are bold if nothing else. When was the last time you heard of senior editors being stripped of their titles? His memo to the staff is posted on paidContent.org.
The moves can be seen, in my view, as a partial dismantling of the legacy of Paul Steiger, the outgoing long-time managing editor and my former boss. (Actually, I worked with/under most of the people in this post. And, no, I’m not telling which ones I liked—and don’t try to guess, either.)
All this is being done in the shadow of News Corp.’s bid for the Journal’s parent, Dow Jones & Co. If that happens, I have no idea what becomes of this shakeup.
To me, “reversing Steiger,” if that’s what’s happening, means rethinking if not pulling back from the “soft news” sections he pioneered, beefing up page one and widening the narrowed focus of the paper generally. That’s to the good. Not every move is great, but Brauchli gets the benefit of every doubt here at Audit HQ.
The big move is page one. Champagne corks are popping, apparently, over the ascension of Mike Williams, beloved by many as bureau chief in Tokyo, to run the page. He most recently has been running the paper’s European edition.
Audit Readers, page one editor of The Wall Street Journal was at one time, and probably still is, the second-most important editorial job in business journalism, after the Journal’s managing editor himself (it’s never not been a man). Anybody who wants to argue that, the line forms to the left. Giants worked there, including James Stewart, and, in my view, John Brecher. It is the agenda-setter.
I had my differences with Mike Miller, the current page one editor and Brecher’s successor, but that’s me. Plenty of stuff that’s gone through him has been flat brilliant, and I mean as good as anything the paper has ever done. But change is good, and I don’t think I’m alone in that view.
Just as significant as the personnel change is an organizational one. Williams will report to Brauchli, not to a deputy as before. That’s not inside baseball—it matters. In past years, page one was quasi-independent from the rest of the news operation, creating a remoteness that encouraged unbelievable arrogance, to be sure, but also risk-taking, surprises, occasional weirdness , and, in the end, excellence.
The promotion of Bill Grueskin, Brecher’s former deputy who now runs the paper’s online operation, to broad oversight of news can be seen as an endorsement of an era that Steiger himself ended.
Brauchli abruptly removed Ed Felsenthal, a Steiger favorite, and, for that matter, a terrific editor and manager, from his job running the soft sections—Weekend Journal, Pursuits, etc. He started Personal Journal, and I don’t see how the concept could have been executed any better. That said, moving Miller from page one to head all the features sections—Marketplace, Weekend Journal, Personal Journal—certainly plays to a strong suit of his. And the not-particularly-well-received Pursuits section of the Saturday paper could use a boost.
Brauchli also transferred Dan Hertzberg, who played the news side’s chief operating officer to Steiger’s CEO, to run the overseas editions, and, at least nominally, foreign bureaus. Hertzberg, to whom page one reported, was most associated with the paper’s three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust corporate coverage.
The narrowed focus hurt the paper, in my view, in that it made it something of a commodity and more fomulaic. A wide-ranging paper is more distinctive and valuable to readers and, for that matter, the owners, whoever they turn out to be.
The other moves are intensely interesting to people who take their salads at SouthWest NY, the World Financial Center lunchery frequented by Journalists, but one troubling aspect should be noted.
To me, Steiger’s legacy, which will be fully assessed elsewhere, included (but is obviously not limited to) the kudzu-like growth of bureaucracy, particularly at the assistant/deputy/assistant-deputy/chief-associate-assistant deputy managing editor level, even as Dow Jones stagnated financially. It reminded me of the Rhode Island court system. Not only was it expensive, it created a baroque court culture that inhibited dissent and, for that matter, most interesting conversation. This, at a newspaper, is unhealthy.
Brauchli, thankfully, has pruned some undergrowth, and now directly oversees page one and the Money & Investing section, among other things; both decisions are throwbacks to a pre-Steiger era. But the operation is still top-heavy. I don’t know if anyone is sure why there is still a WSJ Europe and WSJ Asia, for instance.
In that vein, the ascension of Laurie Hays to head special projects, including investigations, will bear watching. Hays oversaw the paper’s superb post-9/11 coverage, a monstrously difficult job. However, investigations are closest to The Audit’s heart. Nothing the paper—any paper—does is more important. I don’t see how this new layer helps investigative teams headed by Mike Siconolfi (one of the best in the business) and Mark Maremont, who just helped lead and write the tremendous stock-options series that won the Pulitzer for Public Service.
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.
1. See the deeply weird: “Hitting the Skids: As Old Pallets Pile Up, Critics Hammer Them As a New Eco-Menace—They Can Deliver the Goods, But They Clog Landfills And Gobble Up Trees—A Hilton for the Furry Set,” April 1, 1998.