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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