Murdoch to Bury the Leder? Rethinks Journal Strategy

otr rupert1h Murdoch to Bury the Leder? Rethinks Journal StrategyOn Jan. 9, Wall Street Journal bureau chiefs from around the world gathered for a night of cocktails and dinner at the Marriott Hotel on West Street in the Financial District.

It was the annual bureau chiefs’ meeting, and it gave Rupert Murdoch his first chance to speak to bureau chiefs and senior editors at Dow Jones en masse, and to answer some questions.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Murdoch to start some controversy. At the meeting, according to three people who attended, Mr. Murdoch spelled out a theme he’s been emphasizing since last year, but in renewed terms: that front-page feature stories are too long and might be better suited for a weekend reader who has more time to read them.

It’s a touchy subject within Journal culture, and it set off an alarm in the newsroom in the days following. Reporters and editors worried that Mr. Murdoch’s plans would diminish a famed Journal institution, the so-called “leder” stories.

“There’s definitely concern that the longer special pieces at The Journal are going to be reined in,” said Josh Prager, a special writer for the Journal. “It is a concern for me as a person who likes writing them and likes reading them.”

Mr. Prager contributed one 5,000-word story in December 2006 that was his total contribution to the paper for the year. But at a meeting on Jan. 10 at Bayard’s, new publisher Robert Thomson joked that a leder shouldn’t take as long to turn around as the “gestation of a llama,” or about 350 days.

Mr. Prager, who did not attend the bureau chief’s meeting, said there was “ambient” noise in the newsroom about it; one reporter described the newsroom as “dismayed,” another as “very nervous.”

(One bureau chief cautioned that reporters and editors were taking the “most dire interpretation” of Mr. Murdoch’s remarks. Another said: “The things [Mr. Murdoch] said were not prescriptive. He didn’t say we’re implementing things this way or that way.”)

At The Journal, the leder—different from the generally more lighthearted or quirky A-hed story—is a rite of passage and can define a career.

In a ritual akin to giving a major leaguer a game ball after his first career hit, a young reporter is given a copy of the plate used by the printing press when he writes his first front-page leder. Likewise, in the hierarchy of front-page stories—the A-hed, a leder, an extra—the front-page leder is the king of the hill and is generally the first thing brought up in yearly review meetings between reporters and editors. It is, as one put it, “the soul of the paper.”

The stories are big, long-form journalism with a big theme—one described it as a magazine story for that day’s edition of the paper. (And in a day—poof!—it’s gone!)

Unless you have a subscription to WSJ.com. But then, hadn’t Mr. Murdoch talked about making that free? Yes, in November 2007 Mr. Murdoch said he’d make the site available without a subscription in “every corner of the earth.”

But according to three people present at the bureau chiefs’ meeting last week, Mr. Murdoch has scaled back his ambition to make WSJ.com entirely free. “He said he originally thought making it free would bring in the biggest audience, but that after studying it it’s not as simple as he thought,” said one person present.

Mr. Murdoch said that they would continue to study it, and there’s a strong possibility that a hybrid model would be created perhaps similar to what’s being used now (The Journal’s news content is currently behind a firewall; its opinion page was opened for free last week).

In his comments to editors, Mr. Murdoch also returned to familiar territory when he again went on his attack of The New York Times. According to two people present, Mr. Murdoch said that it was a vulnerable institution and that it’s cultural coverage, specifically, was lightweight. Mr. Murdoch said that The Journal could easily beef up its cultural coverage and steal the Times reader away.

Mr. Murdoch also discussed the value of sports in the newspaper, said three people. At one point, while speaking about the limitations of The Journal’s production plants, he said that it would serve a reader to have a table of sports scores for a traveling businessman; he didn’t specifically say The Journal would add a sports section, but that it could have a role in the paper.