Every editor used to be familiar with the journalist who went days, weeks, even months, without producing anything of consequence. His (it was usually a man) contacts were not “ready” for public disclosure of information; but when they were, it would shake the cosmos. He needed just a few more vital details; then a mere exclusive would be a certain splash. He wished to double-check, perhaps treble-check, a few things: We wouldn’t want the story to be wrong, or indefensible in court, would we?
I use the past tense because such journalists have been in decline for 30 years. A few survive. Though they sometimes need a kick up the backside, wait long enough and they deliver brilliant stories. Are they now like the dinosaurs, threatened with extinction? Anybody reading a staff memo by Robert Thomson, editor of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) may think so.
The WSJ was once the home of the in-depth feature and investigative report. It took more than three months to deliver what might be regarded as the definitive account of the story behind Sept. 11, 2001. Now, says Thomson, all its reporters will be judged “in significant part” by whether they break stories for the Dow Jones financial newswires, which the WSJ owns. For the traders who subscribe to Dow Jones, “even a headstart of a few seconds is priceless.” Thomson adds that the “same story can be repurposed for a range of different audiences, but its value diminishes with the passing of time.”
Behind the rather threatening tone lurks this proposition: There is no longer significant economic value in thoughtful, meticulously researched journalism. The most precious commodity in the digital universe is information, delivered at high speed. For that, some people, mostly specialists, will pay a high premium.
As it happens, Rupert Murdoch, the WSJ’s owner since the end of 2007, never was keen on the thoughtful and considered. Thomson, having worked for Murdoch as editor of the London Times, will be familiar with his proprietor’s views and echoes them when he refers to “angst-ridden, vacuous debate about the future of American journalism.”
Murdoch loves newspapers — and took a long time to embrace the Web — but he believes they should be urgent, to the point, even crude. Murdoch’s most recent biographer, Michael Wolff, records his incredulity that, under its ancien regime, every WSJ story was edited at least five times. And since he paid over the market rate for the company, he will want to squeeze every penny from its money-making Dow Jones operation.
This is an extraordinary culture change for WSJ writers. Thomson is not just asking them to be a bit sharper about breaking daily news or to put hot stories on the paper’s own Web site as early as possible. It is not even a question of giving a division that comes under the same corporate umbrella an occasional news break: The WSJ already has a system for doing that. Thomson is demanding “a fundamental shift in orientation” and telling his staff to prioritize work for an operation that is as different from the WSJ as it is possible to be.
As one former staff member told a US media news Web site, its writers “didn’t sign up to write 130-word squibs” for bond traders, but “3,000-word mini-New Yorker stories.” It is as if the staff of the London Review of Books were told to contribute to Popbitch.