Getting the New Journal (Mostly) Right

Mark Potts has a good post at his Recovering Journalist site on The Wall Street Journal under Murdoch. Which is nice, especially since he’s coming off a post that wrongly argues that newspapers don’t “provide value” and thus can’t charge online (something I’ll circle back to in the days ahead).

His verdict is much like ours at The Audit, which was put well by Liza Featherstone in the magazine a couple of issues ago: Murdoch has preserved the Journal’s integrity (at least none of my former colleagues has leaked me anything saying otherwise. Hey, guys: I’m all ears!) but watered down its unique way of doing journalism. That’s resulted in a much-more plain-Jane paper. Yes, the Journal was always boring, but it was interesting boring, if that makes any sense. Sort of like a New Yorker cartoon.

Murdoch has tried to broaden its appeal by emphasizing political coverage and adding things like a sports page, and I think Potts gives the Journal too much of a pass on this:

The Journal’s coverage of the presidential campaign was broad-based and first-rate, and increasingly, the paper’s front page is leading with the big national or international story of the day, rather than the top business story. A few weeks ago, for instance, a fatal Washington Metro subway crash got centerpiece front-page treatment in the Journal, even though it had no visible business angle. That was a notable departure from the past. Inside the paper, you’re increasingly as likely to find extensive coverage of a non-financial national or international story as you are to find deep coverage of corporate or financial developments.

But the Journal is, was, and always will be primarily a business publication. Its ramped-up coverage of the presidential campaign last year came at a time when its core beat—business and finance—was in utter disarray, a time when it (and we) could ill afford to not have all the paper’s eyes fully on the ball. The resulting coverage didn’t measure up to the paper’s past performances.

Its lowered ambitions are what Potts bemoans here, rightly. Bizarrely, at a time when we’re all talking about “commodity news” and how to distinguish your content and make it valuable, the Journal has emphasized standard news reports, while de-emphasizing in-depth reporting and long-form journalism. It now encourages its staffers to be more like their cousins at the Dow Jones Newswires.

Which is to say it’s also become a less American newspaper, unsurprising if you look at the masthead, where the top jobs are held by non-Americans, including Robert Thomson, Gerard Baker, and Leslie Hinton (Rupe himself converted to Team America so he could get a TV licensing deal back in the day), who, like much of the top editorial staff now, are not Journal alums, a sharp departure from the past. (UPDATE: And how could I forget the explosion of “mightn’ts”?)

Fellow Journal alum Heidi N. Moore wrote on Twitter last week that “Much of BusinessWeek is run by WSJ alums. So is (Bloomberg) now.” To which I replied “Funny then that the WSJ itself isn’t!”

Whatever Murdoch says to the contrary, his staffing moves show he clearly came into the place with a disdain for its way of doing journalism.

That’s not to say there aren’t key staff with Journal DNA still doing important jobs. It hasn’t been a full-scale revolution. The paper is still the best financial news outlet and it still does critically important work, like today’s “leder” I praised this morning.

But if you think the paper reads more like the Financial Times these days, you’re right.

Here’s how Potts puts the changes:

Murdoch’s strategy has not been without cost. Longtime Journal fans (and I’m one) worry that the paper has moved too far away from the insightful, savvy and even entertaining coverage of the business world that had been its bread and butter for decades. The Journal’s day in, day out business reporting—with some very notable exceptions—has become much more pedestrian lately, scrubbed of many of its formerly lovable quirks.

Ain’t that the truth. Here’s some more gospel:

Still, I miss the Journal’s depth and insight into business coverage. It’s just not as interesting a read as it was before Murdoch. The formerly wonderful and eclectic Marketplace section has been gutted, for instance, and a lot of the paper’s former personality has gone by the wayside. That’s what made it valuable and unique, and I daresay it’s one of the things that made its much-vaunted online subscription model a success. Subscribers paid for the online(and offline) version of the Journal because there was nothing like it as a source of vital, interesting and readable financial news and information.

As a general-interest publication, however, the Journal is much less distinct. Murdoch may win the war of attrition with The New York Times, but in victory, the Wall Street Journal may no longer be really special.

I’ll confidently predict that the Journal won’t win any war of attrition with The New York Times. It doesn’t come anywhere near reproducing the breadth of coverage that the Times does—except in business—and the Times’s business coverage of the crisis last year was often more like the Journal’s than the Journal’s itself.

The NYT isn’t going anywhere, no matter what Murdoch or the ad market does. There are too many rich folks who would love nothing more than to add a few paragraphs to their obits by snagging that trophy.

Murdoch’s already got his. By moving on to the Times’s field of battle, he’s leaving his own flank partially exposed.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.