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?