Once, dissent was common in American newsrooms. Today, it’s rare for reporters, or even former reporters, to speak up about what’s happening within their organizations, even if it’s about a simple disagreement over editorial choices.
Well, now one has. And not just any reporter.
Ann Davis Vaughan is a former Wall Street and investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal, winner of a Loeb Award in 2007 for coverage of the Amaranth crackup, and was named a “business journalist of the year” by the World Leadership Forum in London (now the Leadership Forum) in 2005 (and she was a colleague of mine in the paper’s Law Group back in the ’90s). She was also one of the paper’s more productive reporters, hustling for scoops as well as longform exposés. Her Loeb, for instance, was for deadline reporting. Three years ago, she left the paper, and her “dream job,” to start her own independent research firm, Reservoir Research Partners. (ADDING: I refer to her below by her married name, Vaughan, but during her entire Journal career she was “Ann Davis” and wrote under that byline.)
In a thoughtful and soberly worded essay that becomes available ($$) today, Vaughan pulls the curtain back on the inner life of The Wall Street Journal’s newsroom since Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. took over the paper’s parent in early 2008.
Vaughan describes a drip-drip of internal changes in management attitudes and priorities that overtook the paper and that add up to a remaking of an American institution from the inside out. This essay is about as far from a screed as you can get; she goes out of her way to be fair and dwells to considerable degree on her decision to leave newspapers altogether and apply her skills in a new way for people who will pay a pretty penny for them. But it’s all the more convincing for the reasonable way it describes how newsroom priorities at the Journal tilted away from longform narratives, in-depth investigations, and close corporate coverage in favor of more commoditized, general, scoop-oriented news.
Three years ago, I gave up my “dream” job as a senior writer at one of the most storied institutions in journalism, The Wall Street Journal. My job was no longer a dream job, at least not for me.
The changes sweeping the newspaper business, and our new owners’ approachto the Journal, led me to make a major professional shift: I started my own independent research firm, where I now serve as an investigative reporter for a few elite investors, rather than an investigative reporter whose work is read by millions…
Not long after Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. closed a staggering $5.6 billion takeover of our parent company, Dow Jones, in 2007, he and his deputies began publicly disparaging the investigative reporting culture that had drawn me to the Journal…The first change I noticed was that editors I respected and had worked with for years—those still standing after a purge—came under heavy pressure to simplify stories that were premised on nuanced points.
The excerpts are taken from Vaughan’s contribution to Ink Stained: Essays By the Columbia University Graduate Journalism Class of 1992, edited by JJ Hornblass, Michele Turk, and Tom Vogel. The book is self-published and on sale today at this link.
I’d encourage anyone to buy the book, which offers fascinating observations from the class that entered the work force just in time for the Internet to become mainstream and upend media, in general, in journalism, in particular. Among the highlights: “The Gutting,” by Adrienne Johnson Martin, who chronicles the many rounds of lay-offs at Raleigh’s News & Observer; Ann Belser’s story, “The Risk of Eater’s Block,” a riveting account of trying to raise a family on a newspaper reporter’s shrinking salary; Savannah Blackwell, “The End of Smash-Mouth Journalism,” discusses why, after 14 years, she left the field altogether. Okay, it sounds grim. But it’s not. These are well-written, lively, sometimes funny, very absorbing essays.