OLD Media Moves

Identity crisis at WSJ?

May 5, 2009

Liza Featherstone writes in the May/June issue of Columbia Journalism Review that the changes made at The Wall Street Journal under News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch have it veering away from business news coverage and analytical reporting.

Featherstone writes, “Central to this move-the-needle strategy is the elevation of breaking news above the more considered coverage that has long been the Journal’s trademark. It’s a controversial move within the paper. Theo Francis, a former Journal reporter who left last summer for Business Week, observes, ‘There’s been this creeping tendency for the paper to be about what happened yesterday, rather than telling people about things they didn’t know, and would never know if the Journal didn’t tell them.’ Francis and others note, in fairness, that this trend predates Murdoch, but there’s no doubt it has escalated under his leadership. On March 19, Thomson sent a memo to the staff urging more cooperation with the company’s newswires: ‘A breaking corporate, economic or political news story is of crucial value to our Newswires subscribers. Even a headstart of a few seconds is priceless for a commodities trader or bond dealer—that same story can be repurposed for different audiences but its value diminishes with the passing of time. Given that revenue reality, henceforth all Journal reporters will be judged on whether they break news for the Newswires.’

“Something had to give. In the past, Journal editors would teach new hires how to be reporters — not urge them to feed the wire. ‘Young reporters here now don’t know what they’re missing,’ says one newsroom veteran. ‘I remember my first leder. I gave it to my bureau chief, and it came back completely marked up: ‘Needs more color! What were the streets like? Were they paved?” (‘Leder’ refers to the long, heavily reported stories originating on page one.) The same reporter points to a March 2009 A-hed—a quirky, page-one feature — that was reported entirely over the phone. ‘That would have been unheard of in the past,’ he says.

“Other forms of institutional support for deep reporting are disappearing, too. In March, Journal management closed the paper’s library, which had provided research help to reporters. And a number of reporters told me that the decision last summer to get rid of the copy desk not only allowed more typos into print, but also cost the paper an important line of defense against errors of fact and logic. In January and February 2009, the paper published 194 corrections, a 36 percent increase from the same period in 2007, before Murdoch bought the paper.”

Read more here.

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