Thursday, May 24, 2007

WSJ should quit covering itself

The Wall Street Journal should hire independent journalists to cover the drama surrounding the controlling family’s response to News Corp.’s offer to buy Dow Jones.

After the distinguished financial newspaper of record initially was embarrassed by its editor’s decision to sit on the story of the $5 billion overture, a certain disconcerting level of spin now appears to have crept into the Journal’s ongoing coverage of the deal.

To ensure its credibility is up to the high standards the newspaper’s staff is trying to protect, the Journal ought to engage qualified independent journalists to cover the story, rather than continue relying on staff members whose personal interests and predilections cannot be divorced from what they write.

While I am sure everyone at the Journal wants to do a straightforward job of reporting on whether the controlling Bancroft family will sell Dow Jones to Rupert Murdoch or someone else, I also know from my personal experience at a newspaper in play that the process is difficult and emotional for journalists who know the outcome will affect them professionally, personally and maybe even financially.

When the Journal started reporting on the story after it was scooped by CNBC, much of the coverage of the unsolicited offer to buy Dow Jones was solid. But things went seriously south in today’s edition.

Although the piece was topped by influential DJ director Chris Bancroft saying he doesn’t favor a sale to News Corp., the lead was buried three-quarters of the way into the story, as follows:

“Several members have complained that the family's initial rejection of Mr. Murdoch's offer was made over their heads,” said the 13th paragraph of an 18-paragraph story. “The family as a whole wasn't canvassed [for the widely reported vote that narrowly rejected a sale to Murdoch], and some weren't notified at all of the offer.”

Had this been a story about any other company and any other family, I daresay the Journal would have jumped all over this, likely making it the lead. But, inexplicably, it didn’t.

To be fair, we wouldn’t know about any of this, if the Journal hadn’t reported it. Further, there may be valid journalistic reasons – though I can’t think of any – for why the story was constructed in the way it was.

While reasonable journalsts may differ, this article underscores why the Journal would do itself and its readers a favor by engaging qualified third parties to cover a story that is likely to continue growing in complexity and sensitivity.

That’s what the Seattle Times did in 2002, when it hired veteran journalist Bill Richards to cover the litigation arising from a bitter dispute with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer over the joint operating agreement between the two papers.

A former reporter at the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, Bill was paid a monthly retainer under a three-year contract to dig up everything on the case that he could. Under the agreement, Bill says, the paper either would publish his findings or pay him the balance due on his contract and free him to publish his articles elsewhere.

Bill says the paper ran all the stories he produced, including some tough ones. But his contract was not renewed and the beat today is covered by a Times staff writer.

More recently, he penned an independent analysis for the Spokane Spokesman-Review on how the newspaper covered a downtown development project in which the family that owns the paper has a significant financial interest.

“Having a reporter write about his own paper is like having the left fielder cover the team,” says Bill. “There is a built-in problem trying to cover a newspaper that you depend on for your livelihood. It never works out quite right.”


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