The Journal must resist internal pressure to redefine the paper’s mission.
The New York Times thinks it knows how its great rival, the Wall Street Journal, can boost its readership and improve its strategic position in the realm of big media: It should become more like the New York Times.
That’s the message from an extensive article by Edmund Lee in the latest Times “Sunday Business” section. In the piece, Lee reveals that the Journal “makes money. A lot of money.” He explains that this is attributable in part to the Journal’s brilliant early internet strategy of charging for digital content, when nearly all other publishing companies, including the Times, were giving it away. But that early success, says the writer, “also kept the paper from innovating further.” And that’s a problem, he writes, for a news outlet whose readership is made up mainly of white men—and “at a time when the U.S. population is growing more racially diverse.”
Aha. So that’s it. If that concept generates just a bit of suspicion on the part of readers, a full perusal of Lee’s article would make clear why that suspicion is justified. The writer is saying that the Journal needs to become more “woke” in its story selection and presentation, rather like today’s Times. And that view is shared by an internal Journal committee that produced a 209-page “Content Review” examining how the Journal “should remake itself.” The report, writes Lee, “argued that the paper should attract new readers—specifically, women, people of color and younger professionals—by focusing more on topics such as climate change and income inequality.”
The so-called Content Review went further, recommending “putting muscle behind efforts to feature more women and people of color in all of our stories.” That would include monitoring the race and gender of people even just quoted in news stories; how that possibly could be done through the course of routine interviewing on topics that may or may not involve racial or gender matters defies comprehension. Who’s the person behind this call for journalistic wokeness at the venerable Journal? One Louise Story, the paper’s chief news strategist and chief product and technology officer. With a title like that she must have quite a background. And, sure enough, before joining the Journal she spent a decade as reporter and news manager at—surprise, surprise—the New York Times.
It seems that Story, who heads a staff of 150 and directed the committee that spawned the Content Review, was hired by Journal editor Matt Murray to address a problem. News Corp., which owns Journal publisher Dow Jones, wants the company to double the Journal’s online readership to boost revenues and compensate for substantial losses at many of the parent company’s other publishing and broadcast outlets. That’s a tall order, if it is realistic at all. But the remarkable thing about Story’s Content Review (as described by Lee) is how insipid it is in relation to the goals it sought to address. Does anyone really believe that this mountain of a strategic challenge can be conquered by monitoring the racial backgrounds of interviewees?
Based on the Times article, the greater likelihood is that Story merely availed herself of the all-too-delicious opportunity to leverage the strategic imperatives facing the news outlet to interject her woke biases into the Journal’s corporate culture. Either that, or Edmund Lee did a lousy job of explaining the full thrust of the Content Review. There is very little that emerges in the Times description of the report’s recommendations beyond the diversity obsession.
Here I note (as disclosure for reader evaluation) that I spent a dozen years in my early adulthood covering Washington for the Journal and its sibling weekly newspaper, the National Observer (long since defunct). The WSJ was an amazing success story in those years. Leveraging satellite technology to beam newspaper pages to various printing plants around the country, the Journal boosted circulation from around 1.4 million in 1974 to nearly 2.2 million just 12 years later. Revenue was pouring in.
Part of that business success stemmed from a conviction among news executives that they knew what readers wanted in a newspaper that was entirely distinctive among other news sheets throughout the nation. Even back then some people thought the Journal, with its singular front-page format and conservative editorial section, should be more like the Times or the Washington Post. But top executives knew better. It wasn’t merely a distinctive paper; it had a distinctive audience: top corporate executives and finance people—rich, with vibrant minds, and lots of money to spend on high-end consumer goods, and even more money to invest in corporate improvements.
Of course, times changed, and the Journal had to keep up with those changes. Sometimes it did so brilliantly, sometimes not so much. But through the years it expanded its sections, added a weekend edition, boosted editorial and op-ed space, leveraged the web with profound success, and, under Rupert Murdoch—its owner since 2007—pursued a more general-interest approach to the news in order to compete more directly with the Times. All of these proved to be good moves.
So, what’s going on now? Well, it doesn’t seem much different from the kinds of criticisms that used to pop up at the paper in my day, except that, based on Edmund Lee’s piece, it would seem that the paper is rent now with competing views about how it should seek to expand circulation. The Times article tells of a “newsroom revolt” from staffers who think pretty much along the lines of the Content Review. And here’s the kicker: these staffers want the Journal to place more emphasis on the social justice movement and, oh, yes, address the problem that “its conservative opinion department had published essays that did not meet standards applied to the reporting staff.”
When news staffers go after the opinion department, which is supposed to be protected from pressures from the news side (and vice versa), you know this is an ideological conflict and not about circulation. And at the heart of it is wokeness. The biggest difference between the Times and the Journal these days is that the Times is thoroughly imbued with the woke sensibility, visible in its news stories, its editorials and columns, its Book Review, the Arts & Entertainment section on Sunday, and throughout the paper. The Journal has resisted that siren call for the lockstep ideological leftism that suffuses the Times news and editorial presentation, though small elements of the woke thinking seem to be increasingly seeping into the Journal’s news stories as well.
And now, based on the Edmund Lee piece, we know that the Journal may be entering a kind of corporate civil war over all this. It seems news staffers have created a private Slack channel, called “Newsroomies,” where they have discussed the paper’s need to embrace the Louise Story view of what its new direction should be. And there seems to be a chasm in outlook between editor Murray and the new Journal publisher, Almar Latour. Lee quotes a Journal executive as saying, “They hate each other.” More significantly, it appears they disagree on the paper’s direction. Lee acknowledges that some Journal executives on both the news and business sides have dismissed the Story report as “a woke strategy.” But promoting that strategy are the Newsroomies.
Which brings us to another distinction between the Times and Journal that may now be under challenge. At the Times, increasingly, news staffers hold the balance of power on big and sensitive personnel decisions. This was seen in two potent, blow-out controversies in the editorial department and newsroom over the past year.
First, the paper forced out its editorial page editor, James Bennet, after he allowed the paper’s pages to bear an op-ed by no less than a United States senator. Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger initially defended running the piece by Arkansas’s Tom Cotton; after all, he said, there should be a broad mix of expression in the opinion section. But then news staffers initiated what the Washington Post called a “whirlwind of turmoil.” Under pressure, Sulzberger caved.
Then last February the Times fired celebrated science writer Donald McNeill, Jr., over a controversy centered on his use of the N-word in talking about racism with high school students during a South American tour. Initially Times executive editor Dean Baquet chastised McNeill for “poor judgment” but took no severe action based on the clear reality that the Times writer used the word merely for illustrative purposes and had shown “no hateful or malicious intent.” But the newsroom rose up again, producing a staffer letter expressing “outrage” at McNeill’s action and Baquet’s soft response. Baquet, like Sulzberger, caved.
When newspaper executives lose control over key personnel decisions to internal mob initiatives, it is a sign of leadership inadequacy, which is what we have seen at the Times. The Journal has avoided such developments, but the Newsroomies pose a threat to traditional leadership dominance at the paper. Editor Matt Murray did himself and his organization no favors when he turned over key elements of the decision-making process related to the paper’s future to an ad hoc internal entity that diminished his own control over such decision making.
The Wall Street Journal should not go woke. It should concentrate on its traditional bill of fare, which is news and information for and about business leaders and the financial elite and a distinctive opinion section devoted to enlightened conservatism. Lee writes that WSJ readers are dying off, but he doesn’t back that up with anything beyond wispy anecdotes. The circles of endeavor that have been the red meat of coverage for the Journal since its founding aren’t going away, though clearly they will continue to include more and more women and minorities. And they represent a potent element of American society, big enough and vibrant enough to sustain the paper well into the future, so long as the Dow Jones leadership maintains a clear focus on what their paper is and how it contributes uniquely to American journalism.
Robert W. Merry, former Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent and CEO of Congressional Quarterly, is the author of five books on American history, including most recently President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).