The American model offers—requires—the kind of reporting that won The Washington Post three of its six Pulitzer Prizes this year: investigations of deplorable conditions at Walter Reed hospital, Vice President Cheney’s behind-the-scenes influence, and unaccountable security contractors in Iraq.
Prizes aside, it is also a form that American readers across the country have understandably come to expect, indeed demand.
It is why the Charlotte Observer embarked on a massive project—yes, it took a year—exploring soaring foreclosure rates in its communities.
It’s why the Palm Beach Post spent two years—two llamas worth, by Thomson’s metric— exploring corrupt land deals involving local public officials.
It’s why the Los Angeles Times scrutinized U-Haul’s unsafe practices.
It’s just, if you are an American newspaper, what you do. For me, it’s the key part.
Read all about them on The Washington Post’s inaugural Top Ten Investigations list.
The Brauchli vs. Thomson debate, such as it was, is a version of the quality/quantity dispute that has been around newsrooms since Gutenberg. It has taken on feverish intensity lately thanks to the Internet, which has two essential attributes—it is wrecking newsprint fundamentals and it is always on, allowing (and often demanding) publication at a moment’s notice. Believe it or not, it even takes place at the Columbia Journalism Review, where, contrary to widespread belief, we do not sit around on bamboo mats clinking finger cymbals all day. That’s what administrators do.
The Thomson position—more, faster—isn’t always wrong, but in this case it is.
First, you’d think from the hysteria surrounding the debate that the Journal, like the newspaper business generally, has been bleeding circulation, hence the urgent need for change.
Quite to the contrary, actually. Despite what I and at least one other person see (1) as a period of journalistic decline over the last 10 years or so, at least on page one, subscription levels have held their own, the Audit Bureau of Circulations says:
Second, Thomson has misdiagnosed the problem.
Nick Denton over at Gawker reports that Thomson recently gave a bizarrely off-the-mark dressing down to the Money & Investing staff, the Journal’s core financial section, for laziness and arrogance, or something:
According to two attendees, Thomson berated the assembled reporters for their lack of aggression in reporting news and their arrogance. The Journal, he said, took this attitude: ‘If we haven’t written about it, it’s not news.’
Denton mistakenly goes along with Thomson’s analysis, but says it was poorly communicated.
Actually, Thomson misunderstands his own organization, particularly that particular section, which is about as laid back as your average chicken-processing plant. If the anxiety level in the Journal newsroom, always sky-high, got any higher they’d need a Prozac dispenser near the vending machines. What I’m saying is, that place is tight.
If the staff has been beaten on some deals lately it’s not a laziness problem. It’s just that—thanks largely to the Journal itself raising deal-worship to near cult status—everyone is now killing themselves to get those stories. It’s just going to happen.
And I know it’s heresy these days, but I also find absurd the idea that the world’s business-press readers—outside of Wall Street—are clamoring for the next Mars-Wrigley scoop.
Does it really make a difference to most readers who aren’t trading in the stock in question who had that story first? It really doesn’t. Really, it matters to them only slightly more who makes their candy bar at all.
Look, deals are fine, great even. But it is/was the genius of the Journal—what made it different and better—that it treated deals and all routine business news as a given on its way to offering much more.
This was the insight of Barney Kilgore, the post-World War II editor and executive who created the modern Journal: The paper would pay business-press readers the compliment of believing that if they had a minute, they might also be interested in the struggles of an inner-city honors student; how the tobacco industry used ammonia to boost cigarettes’ impact; or whether Bobby Thomson was stealing signs when he hit the most celebrated homerun in baseball history (2).