Some News about the News

Keeping my distance as best I could from the welter of 9/11 remembrances, I was struck by the slideshow that the Guardian put together. I was riveted by the compilation of tapes and transcripts assembled and posted on its website by The New York Times. That took half an hour, but it not only brought back the event itself with unparalleled immediacy. It also revealed, as if by silhouette, the vast extent of investigation and reporting that has gone on over the past ten years.

I read The Wall Street Journal editorial from 9/11/11, twice. There was not much there about the war in Iraq, except to say that it had been necessary to confront al Qaeda directly “in their own heartlands,” and besides, the war there had “its own justifications.” I was struck all over again by the power that newspapers have in structuring and re-structuring the interpretation of our rapidly changing world. Recall the dramatic evacuation of the WSJ newsroom from across the street from ground zero to New Jersey, and the leading role its editorialists subsequently played in formulating grounds for the war in Iraq.

The news last week that Alix Freedman has left the WSJ, where she had been deputy managing editor (and temporary page one editor), for Thomson Reuters, where she will be editor for ethics and standards, prompted me to do something I should have done long ago. I added Bloomberg News and Reuters to the list of publications that I look at every morning, along with the Financial Times, the NYT, the WSJ and The Washington Post (three in print, three on the web).

That makes six national/international news reports instead of four. Do you think that two of these are not “publications?”  Read on — or, better yet, have a look at those web pages.  The fire hose-like output  of the two news services has, in each case, been edited down to a discrete package of daily news — a carefully prepared report instead of a paper. Thus competition at the highest levels of the news business is as strong as it ever was, at least in the English language – maybe stronger. That’s good news. And, of course, there has been a vast proliferation of other media as well, especially those that facilitate the bottom-up flow of information.

Freedman’s departure from the WSJ, on the other hand, is bad news — hard to view as anything other than the top canary flying out of the mineshaft. A 27-year veteran of the paper, having been for many years an especially ingenious reporter, Freedman is among the most highly respected editors in the industry. Hers was the name bruited about earlier this summer as evidence that the famously fair-minded culture of the WSJ was intact. (She was serving as page one editor for Mike Williams, who resigned last April also to join Thomson Reuter).

It should be no surprise that the Journal, purchased in 2007 by Rupert Murdoch from various heirs of the Bancroft family, is becoming more like the rest of the Murdoch publishing empire, News Corp. The three top WSJ executives – publisher Les Hinton, editor Robert Thomson and his deputy, Gerard Baker – were all veterans of Murdoch’s embattled operations in the United Kingdom, until Hinton resigned as Dow Jones chief executive in July. Goodness knows that Murdoch’s papers around the world have contributed their share of scoops and admirable crusades over the years. But Murdoch’s dominant contribution to the news  business in the United States has been Fox News.

The testimony in London this summer about tactics by which Murdoch newspapers maintained their influence in British affairs has been really shocking, and not limited to the role of the widespread phone-tapping that has been alleged. Scotland Yard’s chief resigned after his ties to Murdoch executives were disclosed; Prime Minister David Cameron, who hired a Murdoch editor as his communications director, is under pressure; the spokesman has long since resigned. Only because the still independent Guardian pursued it did the story gain altitude in the first place; only after Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger enlisted his counterpart at The New York Times, Bill Keller, did the story become a global one, as detailed in a story earlier this summer by Paul Fahri in The Washington Post.

The real news about the news is the entry into the center ring of daily journalism of two more powerful organizations with agendas of their own.

The Bloomberg story is by now well known. Michael Bloomberg, among those on the losing end of a succession battle at Salomon Brothers in the early 1980s, was exiled to the firm’s back office, where he learned what computers could do. He quit to assemble a multi-firm data base of bond prices that quickly became the world’s premier source of information on interest rate changes. Proprietary analytic software for sifting the data turned Bloomberg, the company, into a cash machine and Bloomberg, the proprietor, into a billionaire – charging $20,000 a year or more for a terminal instead of a subscription. In 1990 Bloomberg hired Matthew Winkler, the WSJ reporter who had covered the rise of his business, to build a news service to augment the company’s financial services. Today Winkler oversees some 2400 reporters and editors, a staff roughly twice the size of The New York Times.

The Thomson Reuters story is less familiar but no less rousing. Roy Thomson bought his first newspaper in 1934, the Timmins (Ontario) Press. By 1957, when he acquired the commercial television franchise in central Scotland, he owned the largest number of newspaper in Canada (and a substantial share of North Sea oil discovered in a joint venture with J. Paul Getty). In 1966 he bought the Times of London from the Astor family; his son Kenneth sold it fifteen years later to Rupert Murdoch and bought Toronto’s Globe and Mail and the Jerusalem Post instead. After twenty years of gradually acquiring specialty publishers and financial services vendors, Ken Thomson surprised everybody by getting out of the newspaper business altogether between 2000 and 2003 in favor of “information services.” His son David surprised people even more by acquiring Reuters in 2008. The famous old news service, founded in 1851, has than 2,000 reporters and editors around the world.

Last February Thomson Reuters named Stephen Adler its editor-in-chief. A 16-year Wall Street Journal veteran, who most recently had been editing BusinessWeek. It was Adler who made news last week, hiring not just Freedman from the WSJ but Jack Shafer, formerly Slate’s media critic, and Jonathan Weber, founding editor of The Industry Standard, the supernova weekly associated with the boom. They join a roster that includes David Rohde, formerly of The New York Times, Chrystia Freeland, formerly of the Financial Times; and Felix Salmon, a leading financial blogger. Bloomberg, having purchased BusinessWeek from McGraw Hill and renaming it Bloomberg BusinessWeek, has,  under chief content officer Norman Pearlstine on showcasing the array of star talent already on board.

It is going to take years to learn how these exercises in reputation-building by the new entrants are going to play out – and how the established newspapers will cope. Bloomberg, now in his third term as mayor of New York, is estimated to be worth $18 billion; Thomson, as much as $23 billion. My conviction all along has been that a widely-distributed print product will be necessary for full-fledged membership in the uppermost tier of opinion-making – an opinion buttressed by that Bloomberg acquisition of BusinessWeek two years ago. Bloomberg has also partnered up with the Post to create a joint news service, supply news to the newspaper and transmit copy to Bloomberg terminals. Reuters has begun supplying branded copy to the Times.

This much is already clear. A vast restructuring is taking place. As it happens, an instructive illustration of how business models go hand in hand with new technologies can be found in a new book by Marc Levinson that has been making the rounds, The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. Levinson relates the tale of how a little New York tea vendor became the largest retailer in the world for a time, achieving powerful economies of scale, building eventually nearly 16,000 stores, displacing countless old-fashioned local groceries, and defeating countless attempts by federal, state and local governments to hobble its expansion. Levinson concludes that the dynamism went out of the business when John Hartford, one of two brothers who had built the company, died in 1951. That makes an interesting story and all true as far as it goes.

But it was really the automobile that did in the A&P chain, which had been formed around railroad cities and towns. Other grocery chains in the highly regional and easy-to-enter business were quicker to advantageously locate their stores. And it was Sam Walton’s understanding of the changes wrought by the Interstate Highway System that enabled the company he founded, Walmart, to reconfigure the American landscape. Walton would choose locations for his big box stores while observing traffic flows during helicopter flights on Saturday afternoons.

I miss the old WSJ. All my working life it was the gold-standard for open-minded, thorough and imaginative newspapering – daily journalism that was conservative in the most meaningful sense of the word. Especially illuminating was the running battle of the news pages with the paper’s own editorial page, which began in earnest after Robert Bartley was chosen to run the opinion page in 1972. A potent source of bold ideas, vibrant cultural criticism and much misinformation, the Journal’s editorialists pioneered the idea that big budget deficits were a useful means of reining in the tasks assigned to governments. They are among the last skeptics that greenhouse gas emission are the main cause of global warming.

The values of the news pages of the WSJ are now widely diffused in the industry. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post are led by editors, Jill Abramson and Marcus Brauchli, who rose to high positions there. Bloomberg content director Pearlstine was the WSJ managing editor for eight years and executive editor for two. And Thomson Reuters’ Adler hired as his deputy Paul Ingrassia, former head of Dow Jones News Services.

So it may not matter all that much in the long run that Murdoch is gradually imposing his ways on the Journal itself. And for now, at least, it remains a wonderful newspaper, staffed by talented journalists who are  still responding for the most part to the old incentives. Most of them would rather be there than anywhere else.  The demise of the sensibility of the old WSJ, though, is a shame – a much greater loss than the dear old A&P.

One response to “Some News about the News”

  1. A large part of the WSJ subscriber base receives the paper as a job perk, and some companies (e.g. Koch Industries) will undoubtedly welcome a fully-Murdochized, upscale tabloid WSJ as a daily information source for their middle managers.

    But many will not, especially when the FT offers an alternative.

    The WSJ’s circulation audits will become interesting reading over the next few years.

    I particularly enjoyed this sentence:
    “Especially illuminating was the running battle of the news pages with the paper’s own editorial page, which began in earnest after Robert Bartley was chosen to run the opinion page in 1972.”

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