Wall Street Journal Europe Sourcing Was Unusual

And the CEO of the firm involved is a former Journal executive

We now know, thanks to reporting in the both The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal itself, that Andrew Langloff, recently resigned publisher of The Wall Street Journal Europe pressured Journal reporters to write about a company called Executive Learning Partnership that bought cheap copies of the paper to boost its circulation. We also know that the WSJE subsequently ran two stories about the firm, which provided some 16 percent of the paper’s artificially inflated readership, and didn’t tell readers about the relationship.

But just how unusual was it for the Journal to run not one but two stories on or involving Executive Learning Partnership? Very. According to Dow Jones-owned Factiva and also to Lexis Nexis, ELP had never been mentioned in the voluminous press clips they collect before landing two hits in The Wall Street Journal Europe in the span of six months. That’s what I’d call a PR coup.

As it happens, the chief executive of ELP is Rien van Lent, the former managing director of The Wall Street Journal’s European operations.

Here’s Advertising Age in 2005, via Lexis Nexis:

Wall Street Journal named Jon Housman to be managing director of its European edition, succeeding Rien van Lent, who is leaving to open a consulting firm in Europe, the paper said.

I don’t find a single quote of ELP’s Van Lent, Berend Jan Hilberts, Ann De Jaeger in Lexis or Factiva beyond their hits in the Wall Street Journal Europe. Surely Lexis and Factiva are missing something, but the point is not that they’ve never been quoted anywhere (I’d guess some hits are being lost in translation since this is a Dutch company), but that they are not what you would call go-to sources, at least for English-language publications. That—and the news that the Journal had a former executive providing it with 16 percent of its circulation, at least in part with the paper’s own cash—makes the push by the Journal’s European publisher to get them in the paper seem even more extraordinary.

Special reports are almost always lame, as I’ve written before. They are essentially advertising-driven supplements that are not considered core news coverage. There’s nothing inherently unethical about them but they are more or less considered to be puffy and inoffensive revenue generators. And this October 2010 Journal story quoting ELP is just about worthless as the rest of the genre, as you can tell from the lede:

Social media has revolutionized people’s private lives, but until now few have truly embraced the benefits it can bring to business. A new poll from Netherlands based consultancy, Executive Learning Partnership, has found that while regular users strongly believe that social media has improved their relationships with customers, far fewer of those polled actually use it for business purposes.

There are three sources quoted in the story, and two of them are from ELP, including the CEO.

In April, the WSJE dispensed with the other source and just had its special reports editor do a Q&A with an ELP partner on how putting more women in the boardroom is good for investors.

Special section, or “tab” stories, as they’re sometimes called, are already in a gray zone. The fact the Journal apparently had some special, and undisclosed financial arrangement with a subject of the stories—stories that had no real reason for being—is way, way over the line.

Obviously, this story bears watching.

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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. Tags: , , , ,