Exclusive excerpts: ‘The Gestation Period of Llama (Or why I quit The Wall Street Journal)’

In an new essay, a former investigative reporter explains how a Murdoch-ized operation led her to leave journalism and reinvent herself

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.

Vaughan writes:

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.

Vaughan’s story is of a piece with the experience of the Class of ‘92 in the sense that the digital transformation crashed business models industrywide, eroding support for in-depth, investigative reporting and leaving fewer places for people like Vaughan to go. But her departure has as much to do with an older story of the culture shock that occurs when a newspaper changes hands, in this case, from a family that, for a few generations at least, upheld public-service journalism values, to Murdoch, who doesn’t, and doesn’t pretend to. The title of her essay, for instance, refers to a line by Robert Thomson, the Murdoch-installed publisher, in April 2008, when in at talk to the newsroom he pointedly asserted that some Journal stories seemed to have “the gestation period of a llama,” that is nearly a year. The aggressive joke would resonate.

Vaughan describes the profound affects on the newsroom of Murdoch-imposed priorities, including shifting the Journal from its focus on business and economic news to general news, that is to say, news already covered by others. Sound defensible? Sure. Until you see what kinds of stories are given up in the name of chasing commodity stories. It’s always about resource allocation and editorial priorities:

News Corp.’s decision to prioritize general news over business news —despite our identity as the global business paper of record—was another reason to soul-search….Editors had begun asking seasoned business reporters to defer coverage of developments on their beats in order to track “general news” developments on hurricanes, regional crime and tabloid scandals…essentially, anything but business.

To be fair, no one asked us to ignore major news, like multibillion-dollar deals. But for lots of news that we, the staff reporters, deemed significant, the news desk argued that our Dow Jones Newswires colleagues should cover the story instead. General news had shrunk the corporate “news hole,” and these were likely to be cut to un-bylined briefs anyway, New York argued. Here was the result: a CEO might make headlines—say, revealing a downsizing or a new strategic direction at a press conference—and the wires reporter would be the only one seeking the follow-up interview, rather than a group of reporters.

One thing I learned from my Journal mentors over the years was that a beat reporter dominates her beat by closely watching news and taking every opportunity to interview multiple actors who might play a role and say something newsworthy.

And here’s more:

I do not deny for a minute that the Journal is News Corp.’s paper to run, and that the business model must change for newspapers to survive. Good for them for trying. I also still believe the Journal is a quality business publication with terrific journalists, and it will continue to be one of the few papers with long-term staying power. But it is debatable whether subscribers to a flagship business newspaper like the Journal really want less financial and corporate news. Murdoch and Thomson love talking about how journalists at establishment papers feel entitled and presumptuous. I will concede this is sometimes true. But I would turn their point around: News Corp. feels entitled to ask highly skilled journalists to produce commodity journalism, in return for a relatively low salary in a dying industry.

If talented business journalists care at all about the long-term portability of their skills in a shrinking media world, succumbing to pack journalism in the crowded general news category is no way out. It makes senior, expensive reporters expendable. That was not the direction I wanted my career to be heading…

My career shift is not necessarily good for business journalism or Main Street investing. Increasingly, investors are paying investigative reporters like me to go digging exclusively on their behalf rather than publish our findings for a wider audience. But the exodus is inevitable as newspapers offer less space, time and money for investigative reporting. At least the investment world, which is infamous for missing red flags and failing to ask painfully obvious questions, is now getting more of it.

A couple things:

When News Corp. made its unsolicited bid for Dow Jones & Co., the Journal’s floundering parent in the summer of 2007, many protested, including us here at The Audit, for various reasons. One was News Corp.’s long record of not playing by the rules, which made it an especially bad choice to own what was then still the leading monitor of corporate behavior. What’s more, some argued, the Journal might be tarnished by association with News Corp.’s other units. And what do you know?

But mostly it was that Murdoch’s conception of journalism—banalized, commoditized, tamed—would do irreparable harm to what made the Journal great, its ability to combine comprehensive business news coverage—including world-beating scoops—with literate, sophisticated, in-depth narratives, twice a day, every day, five, then six days a week.

As I wrote at the time, it’s about the stories.

Those of us on the outside looking in could only note the big changes occurring internally and try to connect them to the big changes visible on Page One and throughout the paper.

Within a short time, for instance, Thomson would push out the holdover managing editor, Marcus Brauchli, in a newsroom coup that was ignored by an editorial integrity panel set up before the deal closed specifically to prevent such an occurrence.

Then came the internal memos and discourse that shifted career incentives at the paper from longform narratives—public-interest journalism’s natural habitat—to short-form incremental scoops. The implication of Thomson’s “llama” speech—and a preposterous one, in my view—was that somehow Journal reporters didn’t hustle. Thomson and fellow News Corp. managers also sought to pose a conflict between long-form investigations and market-moving scoops—a false choice if there ever was one. It’s well known that the former often flows from latter, and vice verse. That’s the very definition of great beat reporting. Plus, the notion doesn’t fit with the fact that, when it came to scoops, particularly M&A, the Journal was dominant.

A 2009 memo by Thomson made the new priorities explicit, a Murdochian emphasis driven home again with another memo this year, with, if anything, with even greater force in case the staff didn’t get the message the first time.

Sure enough, the result has been visible.

That’s the number of published stories over 2,500 words.

Here is where we say that, of course, the Journal still produces great work. Whether the paper is as great and as great as often as it used be is a debate for another day. But, in my view, those who think so are dreaming.

Many fine reporters and editors have left the Journal since Murdoch took over. In fact, they could fill the top editorial ranks of a couple of newsrooms—and basically do at Reuters and Bloomberg.

Only, one, however, has spoken up. That’s Vaughan, who has nothing to gain but a dose of Internet grief.

She deserves credit. The smart response is to give her some.

And to buy the book.

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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. Tags: ,