What’s Going Down on the Farm? Ask the Bankers

The devolution of The Wall Street Journal's page one

Gawker had an interesting quote from an anonymous Wall Street Journal staffer this morning on the Mark Penn controversy.

“While the Mark Penn incident is as egregious as it is embarrassing, at this point, I think most of the newsroom is so emotionally numb that nothing surprises us anymore. Truly.”

If you want a reason why, take a look at the paper’s storied page one these days, which reads more like Wikipedia than the WSJ page one of yore.

For instance, see today’s above-the-fold A1 story headlined “Recession Finally Hits Down on the Farm.” It has almost no reporting from the, you know, farm. In fact, it quotes more bankers than it does farmers: three to two. The farmers get 123 words.

So I searched “down on the farm” in Factiva to see how the Journal had covered this cliche on page one in recessions past. Here’s a 2002 story from Jonathan Eig:

LA PORTE CITY, Iowa — Rich and Shelly Docekal are wondering where they went wrong in raising their 17-year-old son. His trouble isn’t drugs, gangs or fast cars. It’s a rural temptation: He wants to be a farmer.

“I almost feel sorry for him,” says Rich Docekal, 49, who farms about 900 acres of soybeans and corn. “This is what he wants to do. But it’s just not possible.”

Down on the farm, times are so hard that a desire to raise crops is viewed as a sign of misguided youth. Not that it afflicts many young people here. Half the students at Union High School, located deep in crop country, have grown up on farms. Yet a recent survey showed that of the 97 Union High
seniors this year, only one wants to be a farmer: Joe Docekal.

Here’s a story from the 1991 recession:

ALDEN, Iowa — The big news around here is that Tom and Linda Jass are moving on.

From his seat on the porch, Mr. Jass, a tall, slim figure in worn chinos, can see his corn and soybean fields. Out back is the chicken coop that collapsed last fall. Across the way is his father-in-law’s farm. And everywhere, it seems, are reminders of the frustration that is driving the Jasses away, both from farming and from this tiny town in north-central Iowa.

“I’m tired of sitting here and being lonely and feeling that what I do is of no value,” says the 42-year-old father of four, who adds that he has lost “a ton of money” in the richest soil in the world. He doesn’t know where he is going, or what he is going to do, he says, “but it’s going to be constructive.”

Nice. Would you rather read those or would you rather read this:

The American farm, which has weathered the global recession better than most U.S. industries, is starting to succumb to the downturn.

The Agriculture Department forecast Thursday that U.S. farm profits will fall 38% this year, indicating that the slump is taking hold in rural America. Much of the sector had escaped the harsher aspects of the crisis, such as the big drop in property values plaguing city dwellers and suburbanites.

“It is safe to say that the global recession has finally shown up on the doorstep of the agriculture economy,” said Michael Swanson, an agricultural economist at banking giant Wells Fargo & Co.

That’s the first three paragraphs from today’s story, which you’ll forget about five minutes after you finish it—if for some reason you manage to make it to the end.

The old Journal page one told you a story while giving you the information—and it was difficult, even brutal, to get a story there (believe me, I know!). The new Journal treats you like you’re a computer, processing information without emotion or interest, really.

This is no fault of the reporters. It’s part of the short-sighted dismantling of a great journalistic culture by the people that own and run the paper, namely Rupert Murdoch and Robert Thomson.

Journal readers are all poorer for it.

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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 rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.