the audit

Brauchli’s Exit Is…

The end of the beginning of the end of what made the Journal special
April 22, 2008

The abrupt resignation of Marcus Brauchli as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal is surprising even to those of us who saw News Corp.’s takeover of the Journal’s parent as a journalistic disaster in the making.

The best account, as Ryan Chittum points out in our Opening Bell, is by Richard Perez-Pena in today’s New York Times.

There will be some who say the resignation of an editor doesn’t matter or that it is a good thing since we live in the best of all possible worlds. In fact, Brauchli’s resignation is a billboard-sized sign that the world’s leading financial publication is abandoning the qualities that made it great in the first place.

If Murdoch’s bid for Dow Jones & Co. was the beginning of the end of the Journal as we knew it, as I wrote when the bid was unveiled a year ago, Brauchli’s exit is the end of the beginning of the end.

It is true that, for the last few months, and even before Rupert Murdoch’s company closed on the deal in December, the Journal had zigged and zagged but ultimately lurched toward changes that I didn’t see as being particularly good:

– a tilt toward general news, especially politics, which sounds good but pulls resources away from the Journal’s core business and economics coverage and into areas well-covered elsewhere;

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– an attempt to make the Journal newsier, which also sounds good, but in fact tends to elevate more run-of-the-mill business stories to prominence, leaving less time and resources for fully developed features and investigations that are off the news.

– an abandonment of anecdotal ledes on page one, which seems like inside baseball but in fact is like taking a chisel from a carpenter’s toolbox, leaving only the hammer and power drill.

Again, none of those changes are good from a journalism point of view because they all tend to tilt the Journal toward more commodity-type offerings—things you can get anywhere.

After all, any business outlet can report that Texas Instruments shares fell, or that Royal Bank of Scotland is looking for capital.

On the other hand, one could at least see potential value in any or all of the changes—I mean, long-winded anecdotal ledes on newspaper stories had become the subject of parody for a reason. Sometimes you had to turn page A17 just to find out that the guy you had just spent six paragraphs getting to know was dead—hit by a train at a crossing where the signals were broken because federal railway regulators had curtailed inspections because of budget cuts needed to fund an alternative-energy boondoggle involving some prominent campaign contributor. I mean, I understand the problem.

And news is good. I like news, even political news.

And no one should argue that the Journal didn’t need a change. Murdoch had shrewdly caught the Journal at a low ebb, journalistically as well as financially. The bid came just after Paul Steiger, the managing editor since 1991, had announced that Brauchli would be his successor and just before Brauchli had actually taken over.

I wrote at the time that under Steiger, and his deputy, Dan Hertzberg, both former bosses of mine, the Journal‘s editorial focus had narrowed, the page-one editor’s job had been downgraded, and the paper had grown more bureaucratic. The culture was comically Byzantine; dissent was virtually nonexistent; page one had fallen sharply, in my view, from heights achieved under James B. Stewart and John Brecher.

(Stewart now teaches here, writes a column for SmartMoney, and writes great nonfiction. Brecher and his wife, Dorothy Gaiter, write a popular wine column for the Journal.)

And so over the past few months, it was hard to argue against change, and I didn’t particularly want to. It was also difficult to know which changes were imposed by Murdoch and the publisher he appointed, Robert Thomson, and which were initiatives by Brauchli or his page-one editor, Mike Williams.

Brauchli, a former Beijing bureau chief and Journal staffer for twenty-four years, was a popular choice to succeed Steiger. His appointment alone raised morale. Some staffers had reported a new energy coursing through the paper, even as they bridled at some of the editing on page one.

I certainly didn’t like some of it. I thought the writing lately has been flat as a pancake, especially the ledes, the stories’ beginnings, even on stories that turned out to be good.

The bloody protests that have roiled Tibet expose more than this society’s resentment toward the Chinese government: The rioting also reveals a deep split between everyday Tibetans and the Tibetan elite who cooperate with the Chinese state to rule the region.

Officials said.

I also had a feeling that page-one didn’t fully understand that the blame for the mortgage crisis is not a toss-up between borrowers and the financial services industry.

But even if the true leders—well-developed feature stories—had been reduced to one a day, from two, the strong ones and fun ones and core ones to me seemed to appear as least as frequently as before the simultaneous Brauchli/News Corp. takeover, and the dreary duds were no more frequent.

But Brauchli’s exit is a bit like the boy taking his finger out of the dike.

With Brauchli gone, the Journal newsroom loses not just a topflight editor and bureau chief, a great Asia hand, and someone who was a real, live reporter, one who displayed sophistication (1), prescience (2) and conscience (3). It also loses a surprisingly savvy internal diplomat who, I thought, might just have been adroit enough to manage the inevitable tensions that would arise from the takeover, at least enough to preserve some of the Journal’s great journalistic heritage.

I don’t think the dike is going to hold.

I’ll have more on what I think is coming in another post. And, no, it’s not good that Murdoch is buying Newsday either, for some of the same reasons I’ll get to.

1. Speak No Evil: Why the World Bank Failed to Anticipate Indonesia’s Deep Crisis — It Often Soft-Pedaled Effects Of Country’s Corruption, Misread Extent of Poverty — `Caught Up in Enthusiasm’
By Marcus W. Brauchli
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
14 July 1998

2. Cost of Growth: China’s Environment Is Severely Stressed As Its Industry Surges — Beijing Seeks Foreign Help In Addressing a Problem With Global Implications — Role for Western Companies
By Marcus W. Brauchli
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
25 July 1994
The Wall Street Journal

3. Toil and Trouble: Workers in New China Often Find Hardship Tied to Opportunity — Forced Overtime in Factories, Poor Food and Dank Beds Fill Their Long Days — Now Unrest Is Spreading
By Marcus W. Brauchli and Joseph Kahn
Staff Reporters of The Wall Street Journal
19 May 1994

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR’s business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.