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April 10, 2009, 12:13 p.m.

Why The Wall Street Journal would report on the Bobbitt case today

The clearest indication of Rupert Murdoch’s influence over The Wall Street Journal might be pirates on the front page. Yesterday’s lead story reported the dramatic tale of hijacking and hostages on the high seas of East Africa. “U.S. Cargo Ship Repels Pirates” was the headline. (The cover of Murdoch’s New York Post was less restrained: “YO HO D’OH!” over a shot of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean.)

Two years ago, before News Corp.’s purchase of the Journal, pirates might not have appeared in the newspaper at all, let alone across four columns at the top of A1. Not that they don’t belong — after all, there’s a business angle to maritime piracy — but what a shift from the days when the Journal’s front page proudly ignored yesterday’s goings-on in favor of sprawling features and analytical takes.

In the video above, deputy managing editor Alan Murray recalls how the Journal didn’t report on the Lorena Bobbitt saga for a month and a half in 1993 before breaking its silence with a long profile of the urologist who reattached John Bobbitt’s penis. That was the one and only mention of the Bobbitts in the Journal that year while the rest of the media seemingly covered nothing else.

The newsification of the Journal’s front page has been widely discussed, sometimes praised, and often lamented, but I’ve never heard anyone explain the metamorphosis in the way that Murray did in our interview:

What Rupert Murdoch has done is come in and say, look, you’re missing a big opportunity….These papers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia are very weak. We should be going in there and saying to people, you don’t need this paper. We can give you everything that you need in The Wall Street Journal. And, in fact, that’s what we’re doing now, and that’s one reason why — our circulation isn’t skyrocketing, but it is inching up at a time when everybody else in plummeting.

That makes a lot of sense, but I also wonder about the long-term strategy. Offering more general-interest news may work to knock off some local newspapers, but what happens then? By shifting from unique content to widely replicable stories, is the Journal slowly relinquishing its competitive advantage in a news business that privileges singularity? I don’t know, but I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of others in the comments.

To help frame these issues, I asked Murray about a memo sent earlier this month by departing Journal feature writer Joshua Prager, who accused the newspaper of abandoning long-form journalism. As you’ll see, Murray called the memo “a little exaggerated.” He acknowledged that there’s now “less room for the kind of long stories that were The Wall Street Journal’s tradition” but disputed the notion that the Journal has given up on the craft.

This is the second of a few videos from my interview with Murray. The first dealt with charging for content online and provoked an intriguing response from Portfolio’s Felix Salmon. I met Murray for the first time last weekend, and I’ve never met Prager, but I did work for the Journal in 2006 and 2007, including the summer when News Corp. succeeded in buying the paper. (I registered opposition to the takeover by hanging a sign above my desk and participating in a union-organized walkout, but my worst fears about The Murdoch Street Journal, I must admit, have not come to pass.)

Here’s a full transcript of the above video:

Alan Murray: One of the real insights that Rupert Murdoch brought to us: I’d been with The Wall Street Journal since 1983. Throughout all of that time until a year ago, I had been trained, all of us had been trained to think of the Journal as a second read. We just took it for granted that everybody read The L.A. Times or The Chicago Tribune or The New York Times, and they’d only come to us for the things we specialized in — business and finance — or for something, for particular perspective that we might have that adds to the story.

I mean, the great example I like to use is — it’s a little dated now, but when Lorena Bobbitt chopped off her husband’s member, it was a big national news story. Everybody wrote about it. The Wall Street Journal didn’t write a word. For a month, a month and a half, the name Bobbitt did not appear in The Wall Street Journal. But then, when we finally did, it was this wonderful page-one story about the microsurgeon who reattached, reattached Mr. Bobbit’s member.1 And that was kind of our approach. Like, we wouldn’t write — if everyone else was writing about it, we felt like we didn’t have to until we had something special to say.

Well, what Rupert Murdoch has done is come in and say, look, you’re missing a big opportunity. And, by the way, he said this a year ago, long before we had all these bankruptcies. He said, you’re missing a big opportunity. These papers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia are very weak. We should be going in there and saying to people, you don’t need this paper. We can give you everything that you need in The Wall Street Journal. And, in fact, that’s what we’re doing now, and that’s one reason why — our circulation isn’t skyrocketing, but it is inching up at a time when everybody else in plummeting. So I think it’s pretty significant. […]

Voice over: On April 3, 2009, longtime Journal reporter Joshua Prager sent out a scathing resignation letter that accused the newspaper of abandoning long-form journalism. Prager was known for investigative pieces that took months, sometimes years to report.

Question: I wondered what you thought of Josh Prager’s memo and whether you thought his characterization of changes at the Journal was fair.

Murray: No, I thought it was a little exaggerated, actually. […] There does have to be some consideration for the balance. I mean, Josh was quoted in The New York Observer at one point almost bragging about the fact that one year, two years ago, he only wrote one story in a year. It’s very difficult for newspaper economics to support people who only write one story in a year. It would have to be a very, very good story to justify that approach.

Question: Sure, sure. And they were good stories, but—

Murray: Oh, they were good. Josh is a very talented journalist. […]

I think Mr. Murdoch has wanted a more urgent front page, a front page that’s really on top of the news. And that’s meant less room for the kind of long stories that were The Wall Street Journal’s tradition. I hope that doesn’t mean we’re going to give up on long-form journalism. I don’t think it does mean we’re going to give up on long-form journalism. I think we’ll do fewer of the kind of C+ long-form stories, but I think we can still develop the great A+ long-form stories.

1 “Urology Was Boring Until Dr. Sehn Met John Wayne Bobbitt — The Patient’s Loss, Restored By Deft, Delicate Surgery, Is Now the Talk of the Town,” by Tony Horowitz, The Wall Street Journal, August 11, 1993, A1.

POSTED     April 10, 2009, 12:13 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Wall Street Journal’s Alan Murray
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