Hands Still Wringing at Journal As Robert ‘Head of Content’ Thomson Takes Reins

For the past two weeks, Robert Thomson, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has been busy not being the paper’s editor.

It hasn’t been easy. Since April 22, when Marcus Brauchli resigned as the newspaper’s managing editor, Mr. Thomson, who was forced to describe himself in an interview with The New York Times as the interim “head of content” for the paper, has had nine meetings (in person and on conference calls) to soothe the fraying nerves of his orphaned editorial staff.

“There was a real panic here for a few days when Marcus left,” said one reporter.

Mr. Thomson’s paternity tour has had mixed results, which Mr. Thomson is among the first to admit.

“Let’s not be panglossian—there is uncertainty and thus it is proper for me to stand in front of our journalists and take the tough, challenging questions,” Mr. Thomson wrote in an e-mail to Off the Record. “There is obviously a risk that each phrase will be over-interpreted or puckishly taken out of context, but the far greater risk is in not having a conversation with the journalists, who have performed extraordinarily well in recent days amid the uncertainty.”

Mr. Thomson certainly did not come off as a Pangloss on April 28, when he told the newspaper’s Money & Investing desk that reporters at The Journal weren’t aggressive enough chasing after stories, and that the internal culture of the newspaper had it that it was permissible to be scooped.

“He had a number of criticisms that were fair,” said one reporter. “But saying that we’re not competitive? This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“It was a really unfortunate thing for Thomson to say,” said another who attended. “I’ve been at the paper for a while and we never rest on our laurels—when we get scooped, it’s a painful day here.”

A pestilential wind made its way swiftly around the company; Gawker described a “civil war” at the newspaper.

“I’ll be blunt,” he had told the Washington bureau in a conference call on the 28th.

“There is a fetishization around here with leders,” he said, Charlie-like, over the speakerphone around which the bureau was gathered.

There he was referring to those long-form deeply reported Journal stories that are the brass ring for Journal reporters. He said a new risk-and-reward system for reporters—one which placed equal weight on long-form page-one performance and beat-competitiveness—would be instituted.

In the days since, everything that happens in the newspaper is being measured by Journal reporters and editors as a possible sign of a grand design emanating from the 11th floor of the World Financial Center.

What does it mean, for instance, when some leders are inside the paper? The practice was not unheard of before News Corp. bought the paper—but is it more meaningful now?

Mr. Thomson also told the Washington reporters that the newspaper needed to reorganize the way it gathers news.

“He said the most important change is to sort out a news structure that is more efficient and has a great clarity in commissioning stories,” said one reporter.

But would streamlining the editorial process jeopardize the newspaper’s beloved bureau-chief system? At The Journal, bureau chiefs are the ones who redirect and reshape stories coming out of their bureaus for the front page of the paper. But if the front page is to be dethroned, would the editors who minister to it be as well?

Or what did it mean, about a month ago, when the text of the main feature of the Saturday edition of the paper (called the “center piece”) did not jump from page one but began inside, with a picture box to direct readers to the right inside page? Would something else take its place?

Staffers on the Money & Investing desk were confused when Mr. Thomson singled out The Lost Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle for being too general and straying from hometown beats—like entertainment for the former or energy for the latter—that they might have owned.

But wasn’t The Journal about to decentralize business coverage from its core reporting mission, to expand its coverage of politics and straight news?

By May 1, Mr. Thomson was sounding less stern in meetings with reporters and editors on the media and marketing desk, and on a conference call with Journal bureau chiefs.

Leders, he said, were at the paper to stay. Bureau chiefs, too.

And naturally, all that phew spread around the company just as quickly as the previous panic had done.

“Robert helped to calm things down a little bit, and we’re back into a zone of, we really still don’t know what this is going to look like, and it’ll take a couple years to shake out,” said another.

“Their direction is known now, but you don’t know how far they’ll go,” said one.

But perhaps most important: “There will be a new managing editor in weeks, not months,” he told reporters and editors at several meetings.

The new managing editor, he said, should be a sort of Renaissance man—someone who is well respected by the staff, and has a strong background in international coverage.

Well, why not!

Hands Still Wringing at Journal As Robert ‘Head of Content’ Thomson Takes Reins