Wall Street Journal started downhill years ago
August 21, 2007
We’ve had a priest jogging naked in Frederick. In Denver, Edward Nottingham’s off-duty activities have gone a long way toward explaining why no one uses the phrase “sober as a judge” anymore.Clearly the silly season is upon us, to the degree that it was difficult to believe that “Rove leaving White House” was a real story, and not the result of alleged UFO activity, except that the place where we learn of such things, the Weekly World News in the supermarket checkout line, is planning to suspend its print edition.The combination of aliens and newsprint brings us to the purchase of The Wall Street Journal by Rupert Murdoch, the Australian native who once paid one of our previous local cable monopolies $10 a head to drop a PBS channel and The Weather Channel so it had room for Fox News.Murdoch’s purchase of the Journal has caused a lot of anguished hand-wringing about how one of America’s great national newspapers might slide into mediocrity, but the Journal actually began to slip years ago.I used to subscribe. My liberal friends would see me toting it from the post office, and stare pointedly. I would reply that it’s important to know your enemy; the military calls it “intelligence.”A decade ago, the Journal presented a sober appearance and first-class writing. Almost daily, a whimsical front-page feature sparkled and made me wish I could observe and write that well. The first symptom of decay came when barbarisms like “alright” and “would of” appeared with increasing frequency. Reporters, like all other writers, will make mistakes, especially under daily deadlines. Copy editors are supposed to catch them.If you’re going to pinch on the news side of a publication, copy editors are an easy place. You can still have as many reporters in the field, filing as much copy as before. The results of this cutback are not immediately obvious. But copy editors are the “quality control” of the news side of a newspaper, and eventually readers start to think, “If these morons don’t know to use ‘could have’ rather than the idiotic ‘could of,’ why should we trust them to know how the GATT works?”The Journal started running more “reader service” features, especially in its new Saturday edition. Granted, the Journal caters to an affluent audience, but I’m not especially interested in comparative yacht shopping or diamond-adorned wristwatches.The Journal started running photographs and color. Those have their place, of course, but I had hoped their place would not be The Wall Street Journal. It started selling merchandise with Journal branding, like flashlights, tote bags and ponchos. This may “extend the brand” in modern marketing parlance, but I’d have preferred some “brand building” from solid reporting and editing.Dismayed by the Journal’s course, I let my subscription lapse. I thought I should get some national publication, so I tried The Economist. It had the merit of philosophical consistency – i.e., the Economist sensibly believed the war on drugs was evil, whereas the Journal somehow acted as though a rational person could believe in both “free men and free markets” and the “war on drugs.” But The Economist’s fine print was too fine for my bifocals, so I tried the Sunday New York Times for a year. Sure, there was some good writing, but the Times also published too much plutography to suit me. I didn’t renew.There’s the Internet, except that every time I build a faster computer or get a faster connection, the genius of American commerce soon finds a way to slow things down. Pages take longer and longer to load, pieces are chopped up so that you spend more time staring at their ads while you wait for the next few paragraphs, gaudy graphics add no information, etc.Unlike many modern media barons, Murdoch does seem to believe in print. And given the course the Journal took all on its own, it’s hard to see how he could make it worse than it would have been anyway.Ed Quillen is a writer in Salida, Colo., where he produces regular op-ed columns for The Denver Post and publishes Colorado Central, a small regional monthly magazine.