I really, really promise that I will not be stuck forever on what might be seen as a crusade about the change in the editorial mix of The Wall Street Journal since Rupert Murdoch took control. I don’t want to become the Ben-one-note on this as Lou Dobbs has become for his anti-immigration tirades.
Still, there is some news on the subject. I have written several times now about how the Journal has been devoting its front page to hot-off-the-press headlines that are essentially the same as what every other daily publishes: “Obama wins primary,” “Cyclone levels Sri Lanka.” This is a form of run-of-the-mill reporting to which the Journal brings little value added and, with earlier deadlines than most local dailies, perhaps less value.
But now comes some hard data—that’s what I like more than impressions—that does indeed confirm a substantial shift in the Journal’s editorial coverage since the change in ownership. The Project for Excellence in Journalism undertook a content analysis of the front page stories in the Journal for the four months before the December 12, 2007 date that News Corp. acquired control of Dow Jones, the parent of the WSJ and the three months following. Its finding was unambiguous:
In the first three months of Murdoch’s stewardship, the Journal’s front page has clearly shifted focus, de-emphasizing business coverage that was the franchise, while placing much more emphasis on domestic politics and devoting more attention to international issues.
The before and after change is most dramatic in several areas, as seen in PEJ’s chart I’ve cribbed here. Political news is up four fold, reflecting the intense coverage of the primaries that in the past election cycles would have received less space (if only because until recently the Journal rarely devoted more than a single front page column to any story). The full report at the Project’s Web site also compares the “new” Journal’s editorial mix with that of The New York Times, which Murdoch is keen compete with. There are still substantial differences, with the Journal devoting more of its front page to foreign topics, business and economics, less to politics.
Jack Shafer, writing at Slate’s Press Box last month, made note of the PEJ data, but chose to focus on his more generalized impression that the Journal may indeed be better under Murdoch because “it was swinging hard again in its traditional wheelhouse to produce great enterprise journalism.” He proceeds in identifying some examples, all, indeed quality reporting in which the Journal has long excelled.
This may be wishful thinking on Jack's part. I hope not. He has certainly identified some fine-- and traditional -- Journal pieces. But I'm speculating that perhaps they stand out because, as Jack notes, the primary season is over, and there had been no devastating earthquakes or cyclones for a few weeks, and the presidential campaign was in pre-convention simmer. Indeed, in the midst of these fine articles was the front page on June 4, as Obama wrapped up the Democrat's nomination. It struck me immediately as I picked up the Journal and The Boston Globe from the driveway that the Journal article was readily interchangeable with the Globe (and other dailies) articles. In my analysis, every day the Journal wastes newsprint with such headlines, photos and copy is a day lost to do the type of journalism Jack is rightly trumpeting.
I’ve mentioned before that I have great respect for Murdoch as a savvy businessman and as a risk taker who has made real contributions to the competitive landscape of the media.. My current critique is that the hot news approach is not a strategic direction that plays on the Journal’s long time strengths. To the contrary, it takes the paper on a path that daily newspapers should be trying to leave behind.
Ok. ‘Nuff said. I’ll leave this behind. If only Lou would move on from his obsession.