WSJ changes leave journos unsettled

The Wall Street Journal has been through a slow cultural transition since the Murdoch takeover. It has left many of the more senior correspondents very unhappy, and threatening to leave, concerned that the essence of the Journal was being weakened.

Jeff Bercovici writes: “But perhaps nothing since the ouster of managing editor Marcus Brauchli almost a year ago has done so much to crystallize that fear as a memo sent last Thursday by Brauchli’s successor, Robert Thomson. On the face of it, the memo was no different from any number of edicts issued by his predecessors: Thomson urged Journal reporters to contribute more breaking news to Dow Jones Newswires and previewed a new system that will facilitate their doing so.”

“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,” says Thomson. “Even a headstart of a few seconds is priceless for a commodities trader or a bond dealer – that same story can be repurposed for a range of different audiences, but its value diminishes with the passing of time. 

“Given that revenue reality, henceforth all Journal reporters will be judged, in significant part, by whether they break news for the Newswires.

Journalists from other publications might find the WSJ reaction to providing more breaking news odd: isn’t that what journalists do? The contrary argument from the Journalites is that their paper distinguished itself by not adding to the noise, by having something else to say, and by enlightening readers with a different take. Remove that and they are just the same as everyone else, they say. They fear that Thomson and Gerry Baker, both FT and London Times transplants, are importing FT attitudes that won’t sit well with their readers. A writer at the Columbia Journlism Review says, “It’s gotten narrow, newsier, more small-minded than the ambitious pre-Murdoch paper.”

I am not sure I agree with this, but then I don’t work there and to be honest don’t read the paper every day. In any case it is clearly emblematic of the contest for the hearts, souls and news gathering operations under way in many newspapers. Business models change and so do content strategies: the two need to go together, and Murdoch and Thomson do appear to want to change both, rightly or wrongly.

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