OLD Media Moves

WSJ reporter leaves, has harsh words for management

April 3, 2009

Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Prager sent a goodbye e-mail to his fellow staff members on Friday in which he criticized the management and its new-found emphasis on breaking news.’

Prager wrote:

After almost 13 years at this paper, it’s time for me to say goodbye.

I started here as a news assistant. I handed out the sked, answered phone calls and screamed “Goodnight Pittsburgh!” in the middle of the newsroom when a bureau sought permission to head home for the evening.  Late nights, I headed to 43rd Street and relayed by phone the headlines of a warm New York Times.

I was in awe of all around me. I parroted their beautifully-worded observations and read their beautifully-written stories. (Jim White steered me toward Horwitz, Kotlowitz, Suskind, et al.) And I dreamed of writing one of those wonderful 300-word quirks that ran in the lower-left corner of the second-front.

It took me about 30 days to write my first orphan, a word/day ratio I would never much improve. I found mentors whose instructions (activate verbs, simplify language, etc.) I taped to my desk. I began to write features, many of which concerned the three worlds I knew best — disability, Judaism and baseball.

The paper made me a reporter and sent me to Atlanta to cover small business financing. I struggled, writing columns mined from The Wall Street Journal Guide to Understanding Money & Investing. But when I wrote a leder about the children’s book Goodnight Moon, I at last found my niche — revealing secrets tied somehow to the historical. And over the coming years, the paper extended to me an ever-lengthening leash that let me write what had not been known about a famous home run, photograph and missing Swede.

I knew how lucky I was. At times, I was embarrassed by my good fortune and worked hard to feel I merited it.

Perhaps unavoidably, things changed. Soon after News Corp. began to court the Bancrofts, Rupert Murdoch stated that our front-page stories were too long while Robert Thomson said some had the “gestation of a llama.” Mine certainly did. The paper and I were no longer a good fit.

I knew that newspapers were dying daily, that the future of long-form journalism was at risk. And I knew how lucky I was to still have my job. But as my recent story on Raoul Wallenberg was cut from the three parts we’d agreed upon to two to one, I also knew that it was time for me to leave the paper, particularly once I learned that some in management had expressed the same opinion.

Onward. I’ve applied for a journalism fellowship and plan on writing a book about disability, about the 1990 bus accident that broke my neck and initially left me a quadriplegic. I’m excited.

I will miss The Wall Street Journal and the incredible adventures it let me take. I have loved working here and am forever grateful to the endless folks at the paper who helped me at every turn and taught me
everything I know about journalism. They include Robin Haynes, Melinda Beck, Mike Miller, Kevin Salwen, Hilary Stout, Dan Hertzberg, Cathy Panagoulias, Paul Steiger, John Blanton and Mike Siconolfi. Thank you.

Among the many things I learned here was that reporters need to fight for themselves. (I was honored, for example, to help see to it last year that reporters do not owe a percentage of any book advance or sales to the paper unless they enter into a voluntary marketing agreement with the Journal.) And I hope that my incredible colleagues, despite their understandable fears given the state of our industry, will find ways to speak up when necessary. It is certainly in the interest of any business to know what is on the minds of its employees and perhaps an anonymous but public sounding board can be established by the union or the paper itself. (It might also help do away with leaks.)

Further, the worship of byline and word counts and all that is “urgent” has doubtless stifled the boundless creativity of the Journal staff. I hope the paper will address this problem. Implementing some version of the rule at 3M that lets employees spend 15 percent of their time on “projects of their own choosing” would benefit morale and yield wonderful stories.

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