Fresh over the transom, a new memo from The Wall Street Journal’s hierarchy on the importance of scoops to reporters’ careers as well as the importance gaining access to top executives for interviews.

This, as I’ve written before, has huge ramifications for resource deployment at my old paper and, ultimately, what the public reads every day. This is how “news” is defined.

Matt Murray is a deputy managing editor for the paper. He and other editors didn’t respond to my emails. “Gerry” mentioned in the note is Gerard Baker, the paper’s new managing editor, a News Corp. appointment whose installation was punctuated by Rupert Murdoch pouring champagne over his head. The Baker memo Murray refers to is here. “URGENT” is an internal system for transmitting news quickly. I wrote about it here. “FX Trader” is an operation devoted to currency markets, or foreign exchange.

From: Matt Murray

Date: January 10, 2013, 6:52:26 AM PST

To: WSJ All News Staff

Subject: SCOOPS

Colleagues:

Nothing we do as a news organization is more important than maintaining a steady flow of scoops. Exclusives are at the very heart of our journalism and of what readers expect of us. As Gerry noted in his New Year’s note, “Scoops are the only guarantee of survival” in a highly competitive news arena.

And a week into the New Year, we want to underscore the need for a renewed, and ongoing, push for scoops. They are vital for distinguishing virtually everything we do—from producing a real-time newswire that is a must-read for customers; to maintaining a fresh, lively website that keeps readers coming back again and again; to publishing a newspaper that delivers news everyone needs and no one can find elsewhere.

Scoops of fact and analysis are of course a long-standing hallmark of our journalism and the crucial measure of success on any beat. Happily, we have had several good ones to start the year—but, alas, there also have been a couple big ones that we missed.

With our ability to gain access, we should also be regularly conducting exclusive interviews around the world with newsmakers from government, business and finance. We had a good burst of such interviews over the past year with the introduction of FX Trader; with the new year, we need to redouble our efforts on interview requests, on topics from the macro-outlook to corporate strategies.

Success at obtaining scoops, and avoiding being scooped by competitors, will be central to how each of us is directly evaluated—just as it is central to how rightfully demanding readers evaluate us every day.

As you dive into 2013, please keep this crucial need at the forefront of your thinking. And as you file, please (also following up on an earlier Gerry note) send your copy to URGENT and mark it “believed exclusive” so editors can give your work the attention it deserves across our various publishing channels.

Thanks in advance for your accelerated efforts.

Regular readers know that we have no problem with scoops. But news, especially business news, as I wrote recently with regard to The New York Times’s business section, is a balancing act between access and accountability, between investor interests and the public interest. As we learned during the financial crisis, they’re not the same thing.

To do the latter, a news organization needs to create an infrastructure and reporter incentives that allow for it. Scoops are one thing; long-form investigations, narratives, and memorable features are another.

Again, this about balance. I’ll just pull out and emphasize a couple of phrases from the memo:

Nothing we do as a news organization is more important than maintaining a steady flow of scoops…we want to underscore the need for a renewed, and ongoing, push for scoops. They are vital for distinguishing virtually everything we do…Success at obtaining scoops, and avoiding being scooped by competitors, will be central to how each of us is directly evaluated….

Etc.

I don’t think it can be any clearer.

One question: Is Baker correct when he says: “In a bewilderingly competitive news field, scoops are the only guarantee of survival.”

The fact is, in a “bewilderingly competitive news field,” scoops are necessary but not sufficient. They don’t guarantee anything.

It’s worth remembering that, once upon a time, one tiny American trade paper became a global powerhouse by both winning scoops and, mostly, by dramatically expanding its vision of the news. Guess which one that was?


Further reading: “Narrowed Gaze: how the business press forgot the rest of us”;



“The Hamster Wheel”

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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.