We’ve long been critical of the changes Rupert Murdoch has wrought at The Wall Street Journal.
But Joe Nocera of The New York Times went too far on Saturday, writing that my former paper has been “Fox-ified” and turned from “a great paper into a mediocre one.” The latter is harder to dispute, and I’ll come back to that below, but the former is plainly not true.
First, let’s get it out of the way that I’m talking about the Journal’s news pages, not its wacky editorial page, which has long been a sort of upper crust Fox News— right-wing misdirection, propaganda, and too often, outright bull, yes, just packaged tastefully for elite consumption. In other words, the WSJ edit page was Fox-ified in its own way before Fox News even existed, and its outsize influence on the people who run the world was baleful long before the Bancrofts parted with their prestigious inheritance.
But the idea that the Journal’s news pages are anything approaching Fox News is just unfair. It’s true that the paper, which used to be as balanced as any newspaper, has perceptibly tilted to the right under Murdoch. We’ve noticed Fox-like stuff showing up where it wouldn’t have pre-2008, though it’s hardly pervasive. It’s hard to quantify, of course, but I get a sense reading it that stories with right-wing-friendly storylines have an easier path to prominence in the paper than they did before. In other words, we’ve seen troubling instances of Fox-iness and maybe even some Fox-iocity, but hardly a wholesale Fox-ification of the paper, which is the impression Nocera leaves.
And I’ve also sensed that there has been pushback within the institution on these things. There’s still a lot of “old Journal” DNA in the building. Of the eleven names at the top of the masthead, eight are holdovers from the Bancroft era. Unfortunately, two of the other three are the top two people at the paper, Murdoch’s yacht buddy Robert Thomson and his former neocon columnist at The Times of London, Gerard Baker.
At the same time, it sometimes seems like there are more Journal people at Bloomberg, Reuters, and The New York Times than there are left at the actual Journal itself. That exodus is concerning to those of us who hope that something of what made the old Journal great can be preserved.
Our primary complaints with the Murdoch Journal have been the generalization and Anglicization of the paper, with its emphasis on shorter stories, general news, and its deemphasis of deeper reporting and analysis. All those changes came at the exact worst possible time in the post-Kilgore history of the paper: at the outset of a crisis on its raison d’etre beat, one on which the Journal has not led.
Which brings me to Nocera’s assertion that Murdoch has turned “a great paper into a mediocre one.” A senior Journal editor who’s been at the paper for many years told me in a private Twitter discussion this weekend that “The Wall Street Journal is a better paper today than it was three years ago.”
I think that’s clearly not the case, but I’d hardly expect a senior editor to talk about how his paper has fallen off in recent years, and as Dean Starkman has said there’s no real scientific way to win the qualitative argument:
You can’t actually measure journalism’s quality; that’s its tragic flaw and maybe saving grace. You can point to circulation or prizes, but journalism is more art than science. It’s why quantity will always have an advantage over quality. But qualitative comparisons, particularly between eras, are basically just an argument.
The paper is better in some ways. Its newish weekend review section is very good, often much more interesting than The New York Times’s, and certainly better than what the Journal put out before Murdoch. The paper has clearly invested in photography, where once it was an afterthought (my non-photog wife got dominant art on B1 back in 2005 with some snaps of a Seattle construction pit), and foreign news, and hasn’t slashed the newsroom.
That’s great and all (particularly that last bit), but the distinctive thing about the old Journal was its depth, its focus on business, and its credibility. And all three have clearly taken serious hits under Murdoch. Mark Potts put it well on those first two a couple of years ago:
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…