the audit

Wall Street Journal: time to look in the mirror

Its Pulitzer shutout reaches six years
April 17, 2013

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

Old man goes to shul, prays: “Dear God, just once, let me win the lottery.”


Flies to Jerusalem, goes to Wall: “Dear God, just once, let me win the lottery.”


Takes bus to Sinai, scrambles to top: “Dear God, ….”

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Sky darkens, thunder, voice booms out: “Nu? Meet me half-way. Buy a ticket.”

For a long time, I’ve been rooting for the newsroom of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal to win a Pulitzer Prize (not the Op-Ed page, which seems to have no trouble).

The idea being that my old paper is an important American institution—still, I will go out on a limb and say, the global financial news leader, the most important monitor of markets, corporate behavior, and the economy.

Likewise, the Pulitzers are important, even taking into account the naysayers’ arguments that they are a “self-validating ritual whereby journalists give each other prizes and then boast to the public about them.”

That’s certainly true. But on this, I side with Roy J. Harris Jr., who wrote the (or at least “a” very fine) book on the prizes:

The Pulitzers have played a proactive, standard-setting role since press pioneer Joseph Pulitzer first devised them in the early 1900s.

That’s just it. Journalism prizes have no value for the public—zero—in and of themselves. Prizes do, however, offer bureaucratic and career incentives to the big, time-consuming, expensive, risky, agenda-setting work—especially investigations—that news organizations could very easily skip, and often do. The Pulitzers, being the most prestigious prize, by definition provide the greatest incentive.

(Here’s where I say, the Columbia Journalism Review, which is published under the auspices of the Columbia Journalism School, has nothing to do with the Pulitzer Prizes, which are awarded by Columbia University and administered by the school. Having moved to Times Square, we’re not even in the same zip code anymore.)

No one should do a story for a prize. I hope that’s obvious. In fact, if you set out to win a prize, you shouldn’t win one, and odds are very good that you won’t.

But the fact is, there are precious few—none, actually—metrics for journalism quality, while quantity can be measured to the last key stroke. And in a bureaucracy, that which can be measured wins. That’s why quantity will always have an advantage over quality.

As I’ve said, prizes are a juried, peer-reviewed, qualitative judgment; they’re not perfect, but they’re what we have.

On Monday, the Journal found itself shut out of the Pulitzers, this being now the sixth year running. What’s more, they weren’t among the finalists. That means none of the entries got beyond the juries, which are drawn from news organizations around the country, and didn’t even make it to the board.

The last time it actually won one on the news side was in 2007, which, not coincidentally, was the year Murdoch made his bid for the paper.

Obviously, it’s hard to win, and no one should be faulted for not winning.

And let’s be clear: to say that there is not a certain amount of subjectivity to the prize would be like saying there aren’t a lot of cats on Buzzfeed. For instance, Bloomberg did a very fine series on elite corruption in China that recently won the Asia Society’s top journalism prize and a shared a Polk Award with a different series on the same general topic by The New York Times. And it’s very, very good.

And yet the Times won the Pulitzer for International Reporting, and Bloomberg was nowhere to be found, even as a finalist. Bloomberg, by the way, has never won a Pulitzer. Ever. For anything. They didn’t even get a how-do-you-do for suing the Federal Reserve—and winning—while the rest of the news business was basically holding Bloomberg’s coat.

So nobody’s saying the Pulitzers are always going to be fair.

Neither is anyone saying The Wall Street Journal didn’t do good things last year. I’m going to give a sneak preview here and say two of its stories made into The Best Business Writing 2013, which I co-edit. Find out which ones here.

That all said, Murdoch & Co. have only one place to go to register a complaint.

That would be the mirror.

A common trait among Pulitzer projects is that they are ambitious, require extensive reporting and careful writing, carry some significance beyond the normal gathering of news, and/or have some kind of impact on the real world, like, as I’ve written, fixing Walter Reed. Basically, this is work that takes a long time to do and requires some length in which to do it. And just because a project has all those elements obviously doesn’t mean it’s going to win anything. Public-service projects have to be a routine and done for their own sake.

Murdoch’s oft-stated antipathy to the concept of longform narrative public-interest journalism was the main reason some of us opposed his taking over the Journal in the first place.

Murdoch made it painfully clear that story length was a target even before he bought the paper.

And whaddya know, Bruce?

That’s published WSJ stories greater than 2,500 words. For more on that, read here.

It’s been well-reported what he thinks about the public-service aspect of journalism, which in some quarters is also known as, “the point.” His biographer/medium, Michael Wolff, reports, ad nauseam, on Murdoch’s view: “The entire rationale of modern, objective, arm’s-length, editor-driven journalism—the quasi-religious nature of which had blossomed in no small way as a response to him—he regarded as artifice if not an outright sham.” Wolff had 50 hours of interviews with Murdoch, by the way, so he’s not guessing here.

Sarah Ellison, too, reported at length on Murdoch’s hostility to the idea that there is any kind of higher purpose to journalism, as well as his firmly held belief that reporters’ spending time on a story is some sort of affectation. Speaking of The New York Times, he said:

One of the great frailties, I think, of that paper, is that is seems to me their journalists are pandering to powers in Manhattan. You know [pausing for dramatic effect] reporters are not writers in residence.

That line is funny all year long, except the second Monday in April.

And there was Robert Thomson’s ominous “joke” upon taking over the paper that some Journal stories had the “gestation period of a llama” (that is, nearly a year).

I’m guessing here, but the Walmart bribery story was almost certainly in domesticated ruminant mammal territory. But if you want to win the lottery, you need to buy a ticket, and those aren’t cheap.

Then comes the “URGENT” memo informing Journal staffers that their performance would be judged “significant part” on how many scoops they could break for the wires.

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 …

Etc. etc.

Then comes the soon-to-be-infamous “SCOOPS” memo from earlier this year:

Nothing we do as a news organization is more important than maintaining a steady flow of scoops. Exclusives are at the very heart of our journalism and of what readers expect of us. As Gerry [Baker, Thomson’s successor, given a champagne baptism by KRM himself] noted in his New Year’s note, “Scoops are the only guarantee of survival” in a highly competitive news arena.

And a week into the New Year, we want to underscore the need for a renewed, and ongoing, push for scoops. They are vital for distinguishing virtually everything we do…

And so on.

Pulitzers are not the point.

This is about creating a healthy news culture with the public interest at its core and having everything else radiate out from that.

Do that, and the Pulitzers will take care of themselves. And even if they don’t, so what?

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.