EXODUS: Former WSJ Staffers Speak Out Against Murdoch

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

When Thomson Reuters announced a major reshuffling of its news operation last week, the story may have said as much about the state of one of the company's biggest competitors as it did about Reuters itself.

That's because all four of the hires to Reuters' news leadership are former top Dow Jones staffers. It's the latest chapter in the steady loss of talent from Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal since Rupert Murdoch took over. And many of the departed personnel are helping to boost the efforts of Dow Jones' biggest rivals -- Reuters, Bloomberg, and The New York Times.

Even before Murdoch's News Corp. finalized the purchase of Dow Jones in late 2007, concerns arose in and out of the news operation that his conservative bent and business strategy could slant coverage or, at least, hurt quality.

In interviews with Media Matters, many of the dozens to flee the Journal and Dow Jones in the past three and half years say the push for shorter stories, less investigative work, and -- at times -- a subtle nudge for more business-friendly stories has made it a worse place to work and resulted in a diminished editorial product.

"Everyone who could leave the Journal and get a good job has done so," said one former Journal scribe now at Bloomberg. "If it had been a better time in the industry, I think you would have seen more."

A former Pulitzer Prize winner at the Journal who left for another major news outlet said fears of Murdoch's impact helped drive him out.

"I was open to leaving partly because of him. I wasn't happy about it. I objected to him on principle. Fox News has a bad reputation. What he had done to the London Times, I had seen criticism of that. The New York Post is not a shining beacon of journalism," the writer said. "He commented a lot about that he didn't like newspapers that competed for prizes. There was a lot of worry at the time that his business agenda would influence coverage. Inside it was seen as a terrible shotgun marriage."

The speculation about Dow Jones departures was raised again last week when Thomson Reuters announced a management change that included four top former Dow Jones journalists, all of whom left since Murdoch's takeover was announced.

Those include:

* Paul Ingrassia, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and former president of Dow Jones Newswires, who started at the company in 1977 and was among the first top executives to leave in 2007 after word of Murdoch's purchase became public. He told Reuters at the time: "There just didn't seem to be an appropriate place for me in the company," later adding that he did not see "any role that really excited me" at Dow Jones. Ingrassia has been named deputy editor-in-chief overseeing news content creation at Reuters.

* Jim Gaines, who most recently served as managing editor of News Corp's online publication The Daily. Gaines, who becomes ethics, standards and innovation editor at Thomson Reuters, left The Daily after only three months.

* Stuart Karle, former general counsel to The Wall Street Journal who was fired in 2008, becomes chief operating officer for Thomson Reuters news division.

* Reginald Chua spent 16 years at the Journal before leaving in 2009. He joins Reuters as data editor.

In July 2009, The New York Times highlighted a similar situation when several Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists formerly with the Journal signed on with Bloomberg:

The path from the Journal to Bloomberg has been trod before - Matthew Winkler, the editor in chief who has run Bloomberg since it was created, had worked at the Journal - but rarely by the kind of big names who have made the switch lately.

The same Times story later added:

Many of the top editors at The Journal have left since it was taken over by News Corporation, controlled by Rupert Murdoch, in December 2007, including Laurie Hay, another deputy managing editor, who went to Bloomberg last year.

Bloomberg appears to have benefited more than any other Dow Jones rival from the mass exodus, picking up no fewer than 100 former Dow Jones employees since Murdoch's purchase, according to Ken Auletta, who cited that figure in a recent New Yorker article profiling Journal Managing Editor Robert Thomson.

Auletta wrote:

Many of the paper's most talented reporters and editors left for the [New York] Times, CNBC, Fortune, The Economist, or Bloomberg. According to internal documents, Bloomberg has hired a hundred and six journalists from Dow Jones since Murdoch's bid became public.

A Bloomberg source reveals to Media Matters at least 40 of those were from the Journal.

"Once Murdoch came in and started changing things, people were looking for a place to go," says one former scribe now at Bloomberg. "There was an extraordinary amount of talent, and they have gone on to other things."

He added, "It was clear that Murdoch valued breaking news, shorter stories, and making it a general interest newspaper. There was a whole group of people who specialized in very long, very well-written stories for Page One, and they did award-winning work year after year."

A Dow Jones spokesperson declined comment for this story.

Former Dow Jones and Journal writers now at other major news outlets said the culture of the newspaper changed when the sale occurred, as well as its longtime mission for in-depth reporting and behind-the-scenes investigations.

Those who spoke to Media Matters sought anonymity, fearing retaliation from Dow Jones or from current employers not wanting to be seen as criticizing Murdoch's news outlets.

"Under [former managing editor] Paul Steiger, the marching orders for the lead writers on Page One were to do stories with moral force," a former Journal reporter now at Bloomberg said. "Under the new ownership, that was not only abandoned, but also got turned upside down.

"For example, there was a tendency for the [Murdoch] editors to believe that the financial crisis was caused by poor people who committed mortgage fraud. I don't know if the stories ended up leaning that way because reporters have their own minds."

He also added: "The Journal was always a place where the underpinnings were that you covered the creation of extraordinary amounts of wealth, but it also covered the underside of that equation and it covered it aggressively. Under the new ownership, that mantra died, and the new ownership had a hostile view of that kind of journalism."

Others warned the talent loss would have a negative long-term impact.

"The legacy of Robert Thomson will be that he has made at least half a dozen news organizations far more competitive with The Wall Street Journal than ever in its history," said a former Dow Jones employee now at another major news outlet, who noted how many top journalists have left for other newsrooms, such as "CNBC, The New York Times, the Financial Times, The Washington Post."

Asked about today's Journal staff, a Bloomberg writer formerly with the Journal noted: "There is a sense when you talk to people at the Journal now, there is a feeling, certainly on the political coverage side, things have shifted - there is more caution on the side of political reporters, you are getting more scrutiny, there are certain things you don't write about.

"When was the last time the Journal wrote about poverty, racism, class, a lot of things that became the basis for prizes and books? There is not a place for comforting the afflicted."

A New York Times reporter who was among the Journal's post-Murdoch departures, said the shift from insightful, in-depth and agenda-setting news to general coverage was hard to accept.

"I just could not take it anymore, the paper just changed," the reporter said. "It may be fine for what Murdoch wants. I don't own it, I am sad for it."

Asked to elaborate on the change in focus, the reporter said: "We used to worry about what was going on in the boardroom, the fly on the wall stuff. [Current editors] were more interested in what happened yesterday. They were more worried about what happened than setting the agenda."

Another Times staffer who came from Dow Jones stated:

"A lot of the reporters left for a number of reasons, the change came under Robert Thomson. At first, people were expecting big changes and then nothing happened. But there was a pretty gradual shift after that, he made his mark and his changes."

She cited the 2009 appointment of Gerard Baker, a well-known conservative columnist for Murdoch's The Times of London, as deputy editor-in-chief. That disturbed some staffers, she said, adding, "He was most well-known for being a neo-conservative."

A third Times staffer who fled the Journal said the paper has changed under Thomson and Murdoch:

"There are ways in which the Journal has changed, it is not the same paper that it was. We have lost some things that were distinctive, the quality of those Page One features."

Steve Yount, president of the Independent Association of Publishers' Employees Local 1096, the union that represents most Journal newsroom employees, said there is a feeling among rank and file that the paper has changed:

"The move away from long-form journalism is a disappointment to a great number of people, it is certainly a disappointment to me," Yount said. "The Wall Street Journal today is not what the paper was five years ago, it is not what it was 10 years ago."

Auletta, who spoke to Media Matters after his New Yorker piece was published, said some of the exodus has slowed, but may ramp up again with Reuters and Bloomberg expanding.

"Is it possible that it will speed up with a former Journal person like Steve Adler at the helm at Reuters and a former Journal person like [New York Times Managing Editor] Jill Abramson at the helm?" he asked. "Reuters comes along and Reuters is actually growing as is Bloomberg. So you say, 'I am at a place that is not very profitable, as the Journal isn't, even though Murdoch put money in, and he is 80 years old and what follows him? Maybe my career is better served by moving to Reuters.'"

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