the audit

The WSJ and the Limits of a “No Jumps” Policy

Dumbing down and devaluing The Wall Street Journal
March 25, 2009

We’ve talked quite a bit about the FT-ization of the Journal since Murdoch got his grubby paws on it, shoved out Marcus Brauchli (who tried to stop Rupe’s myopic moves), and installed his boy Robert Thomson.

One of the most-visible pieces of that effort has been to decrease the amount of jumps readers have to make on section-front stories.

So it is today with what could have been an interesting story on corporations and unions. Instead we get a straight news story that doesn’t add any real value for the reader. It’s well-written commodity news and pretty much dispenses with the famous Journal nutgraf. Here’s what we get for that, after a straight-news lede:

FedEx’s actions raise the stakes in an increasingly bitter battle involving chief rival, United Parcel Service Inc., and the Teamsters union, which has been trying for years to organize FedEx. Ken Hall, international vice president and director of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters package division, accused FedEx of “blackmailing Congress” and “threatening to fire yet another torpedo through an already weak American economy.”

But it’s pretty clear to me, just as a close reader of the biz press, that there’s a broader story here: That this move is part of corporate America rolling out the heavy artillery for its fight to the death, its “Armageddon” with labor under the new administration.

But the new Journal isn’t going to give us any of that. It’s gotten narrow, newsier, more small-minded than the ambitious pre-Murdoch paper. As The Audit’s Dean Starkman (like me, a WSJ alum) wrote last week, this is not a blip, it’s where Thomson and Murdoch want to take the place. The memo last week urging Journal reporters to be more like their Dow Jones Newswires (!!) counterparts is the latest dispiriting evidence of that.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

I can tell you the Journal newsroom, to put it nicely, doesn’t think too highly of “the Ticker,” as it’s called internally, which Journal reporters think of as rote journalism. That sentiment goes both ways: Though all Ticker reporters want to get across the Hudson river to the Journal, they think—with some justification—that WSJ reporters are holier-than-thou. Here’s how Richard Perez-Penadescribed this succinctly in the Times last week:

That points in the same direction as changes made in The Journal since the News Corporation bought it 15 months ago, changes not always welcomed in a newsroom that tends to see the Newswires as a less exalted operation. Mr. Thomson and the News Corporation chairman, Rupert Murdoch, have mandated articles in the paper with shorter, more straightforward openings, pushing down the analytical and predictive elements that were prized in the old regime.

Exactly. The Journal prides (prided) itself on putting stories into context for their readers, making connections they might not have made themselves.

So for instance, on this FedEx story, the old Journal would have probably mentioned analysts downgrading Wal-Mart shares because of the prospect of unionization. It would have given some context on why the move to put FedEx under the other labor law is happening, which I assume is because of the labor-friendly policies of the new administration’s and the expanded Democratic majority in Congress. It would have pointed toward the epic battle shaping up in Congress between Big Business and (Not So) Big Labor over card-check legislation.

We get none of that here (and I want to be clear this is not the reporters’ fault, and probably not even their editors’ fault—that blame goes to the brass).

But that stuff is what differentiated the Journal from other papers. I don’t see what separates this story from the one in FedEx’s hometown Commercial Appeal—and I can get the latter for free.

Jumps are a pain in the neck for readers and they generally don’t like them. The best part about them, though, is that jumps are just a tool to let part of your readers get more information if they want it. The general reader can almost always tell by the time he’s read seven or eight column inches whether he wants to read another twelve. Many, okay most, don’t jump to read the conclusion of “Fusty Insurance Lures Buyers Seeking Safety,” say, but those who need that information will.

I don’t like the way the FT prohibits jumps. But its front-page stories often point to related stories inside that expand on the subject’s different angles. There’s nothing more from the Journal here.

Look, the Journal has never been a “first-read” paper. That’s what Murdoch wants it to be: See the generic Washington coverage that dominated the front page during the presidential primaries, when resources would have been better used writing about, you know, Wall Street.

With the revolutionized media landscape, papers really have to prove their worth with more analysis and depth and separate themselves from the commodity news whose value lasts for all of five minutes and whose value has consequently been driven down essentially to zero. What makes the Murdoch regime’s move really baffling is that the Journal, more than any other paper—on the shoulders of Barney Kilgore—was set up to flourish in this new landscape.

But the paper, alas, is just going in the wrong direction. No two ways about it.

I hope all you Bancrofts out there are happy.

UPDATE: See this good Jeff Bercovici piece at Portfolio on the extremely negative reaction of the Journal newsroom to the Thomson memo.

Horrifying? More than a few longtime Journal veterans thought so.

“It’s a pretty definitive statement to say that henceforth people will be significantly judged by the frequency with which they break news for bond traders,” says the reporter. “That hasn’t really been the mission of reporters here. It was to make sense of events for the lay reader, and to dig into stories and tell stories in a way that people would remember.”

“It’s depressing to a lot of people who have been there for a long time,” says an ex-staffer who left recently. “Maybe there’s a market for selling this shit to people who are creating trading algorithms, but there’s nobody on the Journal’s staff who wants to write that stuff.

Read the whole thing.

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 Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.