Journal Outdone by Buffalo, Detroit

Over the past week, the Wall Street Journal has given a cursory treatment to the important news about General Motors' buyout program.

At midday yesterday, the Wall Street Journal online contained a prominently placed piece of five-day-old news.

The short article by a Dow Jones writer, dated Monday, carried this happy headline: “GM’s Worker-Buyout Plan Is a Hit.”

“General Motors Corp. is seeing more hourly workers than expected opt for a lump-sum buyout and leave the auto maker, according to a company official with knowledge of GM’s attrition program,” said the article, which added in its third and final paragraph that “The better-than-expected buyout rate is a strong indicator that GM’s accelerated attrition program will help the company significantly decrease its long-term post-retirement benefit costs.”

The article provided little information, and no context to explain what a “better-than-expected buyout rate” means. It did not say how many workers GM was expecting to sign up for its buyout offers (which range between $35,000 and $140,000), nor did it say how many had actually accepted, thus making the plan “a Hit.”

This is especially odd, given that other journalists covered this news last week. On Thursday, the Detroit News reported that more than 20,000 of GM’s workers “have accepted buyout offers, surpassing the automaker’s internal target with a month to go before the deadline.” But that apparent success was tempered by the newspaper, which noted it in the context of GM’s historically dire situation.

As GM “is implementing a sweeping restructuring of its North American auto business that aims to close or downsize 12 plants by 2008 and cut $7 billion in costs by next year,” said the News, it also faces “a continuing probe into the company’s accounting practices, bankruptcy speculation and a recent spike in gas prices, which could wreck sales of GM’s profitable SUVs and pickups.”

GM’s buyout program remains just as crucial to the company’s future now as when it was unveiled in late March — a salient fact a number of large newspapers seemed to recognize last Thursday. Yet the Wall Street Journal, the gold standard for financial news, has deemed the story merely worthy of cursory treatment over the last week.

The best the paper’s print version could muster was a story last Friday (subscription required) reporting that GM’s stock had continued a recent surge “after the Detroit News reported that acceptance of the auto maker’s buyout or early-retirement packages has surpassed GM’s internal targets.” Today it followed up, but with nothing more than a few toss-away sentences containing slightly more specificity: “News reports last week said more than 20,000 GM hourly workers have accepted retirement incentives.”

The online Journal offered a number of equally inane play-by-play accounts of GM’s stock price before getting around to Monday’s zinger, and then making things all the worse by completely neglecting to add a smiley-face emoticon to the headline, “GM’s Worker-Buyout Plan Is a Hit.”

In comparison, readers of the Buffalo News have arguably been better served. Last Thursday, that often-overlooked newspaper ran a solid Bloomberg News article reporting that “General Motors Corp. has begun hiring workers for temporary jobs to replace union employees leaving U.S. plants because of buyouts and retirement incentives.” The story went on to explain that “GM needs the new employees to avoid hiring workers at factories that are closing and to cover shortages caused by buyouts” — and that GM would only have to pay its temps $18 to $19 an hour (with no benefits), compared to the usual going rate of about $27 an hour.

The Journal’s buyout stories could not have taken longer than five minutes to produce, but that time could have been spent constructing a link to the Buffalo News. It would have been a bigger hit.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.