Murdoch’s Journal, Joe Nocera, and Fox-ification

The paper has slipped, but don't give up on it yet

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…

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.

But “mediocre”? I don’t think so.

And while the Journal still is often very good and sometimes, yes, great, one of the reasons so many of us opposed Murdoch’s bid for the paper back in 2007 was because the perception of taint for a news organization can be nearly as bad as actual interference. Rupert Murdoch has repeatedly compromised his company’s journalism to advance News Corp. corporate interests and played a raw, bullying power game in capitals around the world—London, for one. Even if he never laid a finger on the place, the Journal’s credibility would never be the same if he owned it. His long history of meddling and of crudely using his news outlets to enhance his power introduced doubt that just hadn’t been there with the previous owners.

That Murdoch sacked editor Marcus Brauchli (along with the Journal’s well-respected lawyer Stuart Karle) and installed his own pal within four months of inking the deal, and despite promises that he wouldn’t interfere in the newsroom, made the problem that much worse.

As has the fact that the WSJ’s newly former CEO, longtime Murdoch sideman Les Hinton oversaw the papers involved in the scandal and helped cover it up when he was CEO of News International. I can’t imagine Peter Kann, though flawed as a business leader, perp-walked for anything, much less a journalism scandal. It’s less difficult with Hinton, who until a couple of days ago held Kann’s old job (and Barney Kilgore’s) as CEO of Dow Jones. In News Corp.’s higher reaches, a willingness to go too far is the price of admission, as David Carr wrote today in a tremendous column.

That the Journal did its best to stuff the News of the World scandal until it no longer could has further damaged its credibility. What set Nocera off was a house interview with Rupert himself, which Nocera called “craven.” It’s certainly not the paper’s finest hour or anything.

But let’s be realistic here: It’s almost impossible to cover yourself. Does anyone expect the Journal to unleash a Guardian-style campaign on Rupert Murdoch (one major reason why it’s so problematic for him to own it in the first place, as Dean said last week)? It was Nocera himself, (back then at Fortune) who wrote the best piece on Dow Jones’s Telerate fiasco back in the 1990s, not the Journal.

What we should expect is that the WSJ, as a comprehensive business paper, will report the news as it develops, disclose its ownership, and display the story appropriately for its readers. But, true, it ignored or underplayed the story for too long.

I think London bureau chief Bruce Orwall, who wrote the story and presumably conducted the interview Nocera is exercised about, worked with what he had in a bad situation, and that wasn’t much. But he still got some real value out of it. Here’s Orwall’s second paragraph:

In an interview, Mr. Murdoch said News Corp. has handled the crisis “extremely well in every way possible,” making just “minor mistakes.”

I understand how that could be perceived as Pravda-esque, but I really don’t think it was. It reads to me like the Journal gave Rupert enough rope to hang himself—in this instance with an astonishing quote showing the old man is either off his head or thinks we are, or both.

It’s not much of a stretch to think that that quote was one of the things that forced News Corp.’s board to finally assert itself.

Again, we’ve kept as close an eye as anyone on what Murdoch’s done to the Journal, and been loud about what’s gone wrong. I can understand to some extent why folks like Nocera, along with Barry Ritholtz and others, have thrown up their hands.

We’ve never given up on the Journal, and we still haven’t. It’s too important an institution. And we praise their good stuff their all the time. These days, the paper is in a minefield and deserves extra scrutiny.

But is it Fox News or even anything approaching Fox News? No, and it’s not even close. You’ll know when the paper is totally gone when it becomes more of a political operation than a journalistic one.

If there’s a silver lining from this whole mess, it’s the prospect, which looks likelier by the day, that Murdoch will have to step down or be forced to sell his newspapers. Don’t buy the nonsense that Murdoch is the only person willing to invest in The Wall Street Journal without gutting its newsroom.

He was the only one willing to overpay by $3 billion or so back in 2007, and News Corp. had to write down that overpayment fourteen months later. You’d have to guess the going price today would be something closer to $2 billion and maybe even lower. No one could hope to make a profit buying Dow Jones for $5.6 billion, but shave two-thirds off the price and I’d bet you’d have some bidders.

Although the idea of Bloomberg or Reuters, say, further consolidating the business press wouldn’t thrill me, either would be a far better home for Dow Jones than inside News Corporation. Even better would be Jeff Jarvis’s idea of Rupert setting it up as an independent trust like The Guardian “to rescue the last shred of his legacy.”

Hey, one can dream.

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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. Tags: , , , ,