the audit

Speedy Kills

A new Journal edict to employees will hurt the paper
March 23, 2009

Back in the summer of 2007, when the world was a cartoon version of today and Dow Jones & Co. was just a steaming leg of lamb in News Corp.’s thought balloon, media writers and other philosophers, including The Audit, were atwitter about the implications of the snapping, snarling owner of the Sunday Tasmanian taking control of the world’s leading monitor of corporate behavior, financial markets, and the economy.

Sophisticates—Jon Fine of BusinessWeek, Michael Wolff of Vanity Fair—argued that it didn’t matter, or that it was a good thing, or, anyway, what can you do, everything happens for a reason.


“More Groundless Journalistic Handwringing Over Murdoch and Dow Jones.”


Journalism at the Wall Street Journal level is an Ivy League profession (or it’s people who would have liked to have gone to the Ivy League), with a set of conceits about process and legitimacy and respectability. Journalism on the Murdoch level is a rougher trade, faster, more direct, less “precious” (and graduating from a crappy college isn’t a problem).

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Etc., etc.

Ah, those were the days.

Conceited faux elites like myself said that the issue wasn’t the straw-man arguments made at the time—that Rupert Murdoch’s company would put Page Three Girls in the Journal or inject conservative politics into its news pages. But yes, we wept and moaned and rent our puffy shirts because we thought the journalism—in depth, well-written, investigative—would suffer. Fussy us. That’s just a process, or something, right? Anyway, what’s the difference anyway who owns what?

MORTON, Miss. — They call it “the chain,” a swift steel shackle that shuttles dead chickens down a disassembly line of hangers, skinners, gut-pullers and gizzard-cutters. The chain has been rattling at 90 birds a minute for nine hours when the woman working feverishly beside me crumples onto a pile of drumsticks. “No more,” she whimpers. [1]

It’s true I wish I was as comfortable as Wolff with rough, trade-y things, but (sniffle) I’m working on those issues, and, luckily, have a lot of support (sob). It’s just that I’m sentimental sometimes and spend a lot of time yearning for the old days, when the Journal did a lot of respectable stories about process:

The day before Chen Zixiu died, her captors again demanded that she renounce her faith in Falun Dafa. Barely conscious after repeated jolts from a cattle prod, the 58-year-old stubbornly shook her head. Enraged, the local officials ordered Ms. Chen to run barefoot in the snow. Two days of torture had left her legs bruised and her short black hair matted with pus and blood, said cellmates and other prisoners who witnessed the incident. She crawled outside, vomited and collapsed. She never regained consciousness, and died on Feb. 21. [2]

That’s kind of a process, right? State murder?

Anyway, this week pro-Murdochian sun worshippers must have been delighted—punching each other in the shoulder, hoisting boilermakers, waving NCAA brackets, etc.—over the memo (h/t: Chris Roush) issued by Mudoch’s top editor, Robert Thomson, saying that those formerly elite Journal reporters are going to have to stop work on those useless, long-form stories looking into, oh, I don’t know—U.S. tax money secretly going to Deutsche Bank, one-time banker to the Third Reich—and will be judged, “in significant part,” on the amount of news they can break for Dow Jones Newswires, which, apparently, has been losing ground to the better-financed competitors at Bloomberg and Reuters.

Writing for the Newswires, where the emphasis is on speed and productivity, is supposed to be very different from writing for the Journal, where the emphasis is on depth. That distinction has been blurring for years, to the detriment of the paper. Now, the process is accelerating:

Our structure must complement the needs of all Dow Jones readers and reflect the contemporary value of what is crudely called “content”. A breaking corporate, economic or political news story is of crucial value to our Newswires subscribers, who are being relentlessly wooed by less worthy competitors. Even a headstart of a few seconds is priceless for a commodities trader or a bond dealer – that same story can be repurposed for a range of different audiences, but its value diminishes with the passing of time.

Given that revenue reality, henceforth all Journal reporters will be judged, in significant part, by whether they break news for the Newswires. This is a fundamental shift in orientation which will also require a fundamental change in the inaptly named Speedy system.

Ah, that revenue reality. There’s no arguing with it, is there? Now, of course, back when men still wore hats and weren’t nearly as media savvy as they are today, Barney Kilgore, the modern Journal’s pioneering editor and Dow Jones’s top executive, decided the best way to build value—longterm—would to be to zig while others were zagging, to de-emphasize what happened yesterday and give readers, breadth, depth, and scope—greatness. But what he did he know? He only quadrupled the Journal‘s circulation to a million.

Anyway, this Speedy thing is a big deal, apparently.

The system is in need of revolution, not reform. We must all think of ourselves as Dow Jones journalists and, at the least, have some comprehension of the life-cycle of a news story and its relative worth to our readers around the world. Not all content demands to be free and our content, in particular, has a value that is sometimes better recognised by our readers than our journalists.

Note the dig at “our journalists.” And “Speedy” (an old Dow Jones system for quickly sending stories to the wire) will now be “Urgent”:

With these objectives in mind, we are sending Speedy to the knackery and saddling up a successor, the URGENT. New nomenclature alone will not generate news, so there must also be basic changes of principle and practice at the Journal. A guide to the new system will be published next week and we are aiming to launch on April 15. In coming days, please raise any relevant issues with your bureau chief or editor. There is much angst-ridden, vacuous debate about the fate of American journalism – this is an important practical measure to secure the long-term future of journalists at Dow Jones.

It’s true. I am a little angst-ridden, but I’m going to take a calming ujjayi breath, strike a Warrior Two pose, and explain a few things:

First, Thomson needs to stop taking sophomoric digs at his staff. That’s our job.

Second, any implication that Journal writers are lolling around, not working hard enough, and don’t share Thomson’s sense of urgency about the crisis in newspapers is a joke. If they worked any harder over there there’d be nothing left but a few pools of butter on the newsroom floor.

Third, you’re talking about squeezing a toothpaste tube here. Nothing is for free. You want scoops, political news, international news, you lose something else. Cranking up the newsroom hamster-wheel is what news organizations in trouble have always done. No one has demonstrated that it works. It is also the bureaucratic response. It is easy to measure words, exclusives, stories per reporter, etc. It’s harder to measure greatness.

Fourth, Murdoch and Thomson have to get over their own conflicts and angst about the property Murdoch bought and Thomson now runs. What gave the Journal its value was, first and foremost, by a long shot, its legendary Page One. The paper’s greatness was the reason Murdoch wanted it in the first place, even while—as Wolff’s biography of Murdoch makes clear—resenting it. If Murdoch saw the value in scoops, he would have gone after Reuters. But he didn’t, did he?

Fifth, I predicted all this.

Sixth, I wonder what the old Dow Jones crowd must be thinking.

Not to mention the News Corp. director/aspiring opera singer appointed to represent the Bancroft family, Dow Jones’s former controlling shareholders who had inherited special “Class B” shares designed to help them preserve the Journal‘s “independence and integrity” but sold the paper anyway.

Maybe someone should wake up Dow Jones’s “special committee” on editorial integrity, the Maytag repairmen of the media industry.

Seventh, while the staff is running around Speedy-ing things, we’ll never know what readers gave up in return for all those 200-word items about pharma industry talks and whatnot.

OAKLAND, Calif. — On the eve of the 1986 leveraged buy-out of Safeway Stores Inc., the board of directors sat down to a last supper. Peter Magowan, the boyish-looking chairman and chief executive of the world’s largest supermarket chain, rose to offer a toast to the deal that had fended off a hostile takeover by the corporate raiders Herbert and Robert Haft.

“Through your efforts, a true disaster was averted,” the 44-year-old Mr. Magowan told the other directors. By selling the publicly held company to a group headed by buy-out specialists Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and members of Safeway management, “you have saved literally thousands of jobs in our work force,” Mr. Magowan said. “All of us — employees, customers, shareholders — have a great deal to be thankful for.”

Nearly four years later, Mr. Magowan and the KKR group can indeed count their blessings. While they borrowed heavily to buy Safeway from the shareholders, last month they sold 10% of the company (but none of their own shares) back to the public — at a price that values their own collective stake at more than $800 million, more than four times their cash investment.

Employees, on the other hand, have considerably less reason to celebrate. Mr. Magowan’s toast notwithstanding, 63,000 managers and workers were cut loose from Safeway, through store sales or layoffs. While the majority were re-employed by their new store owners, this was largely at lower wages, and many thousands of Safeway people wound up either unemployed or forced into the part-time work force. A survey of former Safeway employees in Dallas found that nearly 60% still hadn’t found full-time employment more than a year after the layoff.

James White, a Safeway trucker for nearly 30 years in Dallas, was among the 60%. In 1988, he marked the one-year anniversary of his last shift at Safeway this way: First he told his wife he loved her, then he locked the bathroom door, loaded his .22-caliber hunting rifle and blew his brains out.[3]

Speedy that.

These Six Growth Jobs Are Dull, Dead-End, Sometimes Dangerous They Show How ’90s Trends Can Make Work Grimmer For Unskilled Workers Blues on the Chicken Line; By Tony Horwitz, December 1, 1994

2. A Deadly Exercise:
Practicing Falun Gong Was a Right, Ms. Chen Said, to Her Last Day — Cellmates Recall the Screams Of the Chinese Retiree Before She Died in Jail —`No Measures Too Excessive’; By Ian Johnson, April 20, 2000

3. “The Reckoning: Safeway LBO Yields Vast Profits But Exacts a Heavy Human Toll,” Susan Faludi, May 16, 1990.

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.