How to Kill a Story

Murdoch would kill the Journal’s journalism

How do you kill a story? It must be hard, right? All reporters know the truth: any monkey can do it.

“Are you sure of your facts? Have you got a smoking gun here?”

Or how about: You’re “boring people.”

That’s three ways, right there, employed by Rupert Murdoch to beat down Sunday Times of London stories about a British contractor preparing to bribe Malaysian officials, according to a depressingly thorough story in this mornings Wall Street Journal. The story is about the potential future owner of the Journal’s parent, Dow Jones & Co.

The stories ran, apparently. But what readers need to understand is that in the wrong environment, investigative stories are as vulnerable as Janet Leigh in the Bates Motel.

To be clear: doing stories about public corruption is hard. Killing stories about public corruption is easy. Does anyone seriously think Watergate would have run in a News Corp. newspaper?

And for you recent graduates of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the answer to the three concerns are:

1. If I wasn’t sure, I wouldn’t have filed it.
2. What kind of smoking gun did you have in mind and is that the standard?
3. I bet the Pentagon Papers were boring in parts.

Sure you want your facts to be right, the case to be made, and the story to be a good yarn. But bad editing in bad faith—and yes, Virginia, it happens—can kill a story almost every time. Doesn’t bribery happen all the time in Asia? And how big is Malaysia, anyway?

This very good WSJ story misses one thing, however. It isn’t just the specific stories that will be disappeared (who’s going to know?). What will eventually erode to nothing is the very form in which stories such as today’s was written. At the Journal, it’s called a “leder.” It starts on page one, and goes for 2,000 words or more, about forty-five column inches or so.

Leders are what make the Journal the Journal. It sure isn’t Yahoo! earnings stories and it’s not another ABN-AMRO merger story, even if it does break fifteen minutes before MSNBC. Leders, in the end, are the reason Journal reporters want to work there. That’s why the staff is pulling out its hair.

As it is, long-form narratives have suffered in recent years at my old paper, in ways I’ll get to in another post. But my point is, it’s the form itself that’s most under threat from Murdoch. And, in case anyone is wondering, Murdoch is not a journalist. He’s a journalist like I’m the lead dancer in the New York City Ballet. Among the many things he doesn’t get is the leder:

”I’m sometimes frustrated by the long stories,” he said, adding that he rarely gets around to finishing some articles.

I’d say today’s piece was about 110 inches.

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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.