Trouble at The Wall Street Journal ‘s Weekend Section

As journalism jobs go, what could be more fun than writing or editing for the “Weekend Journal”? Plenty, apparently.

The lively, colorful section nestled in every Friday’s Wall Street Journal stands out among the gray columns of trade reports. Since its debut as a separate section in March 1998, it has become an oasis of fun amid the solemnity. Advertisers like it, too.

Getting the credit is the Weekend Journal’s editor, Joanne Lipman. Known as a talented and energetic editor-the joke was that being edited by her while she was one of the page 1 editors either got you a Pulitzer Prize or a nervous breakdown-she’s lauded for creating a new kind of ad-friendly journalism for the paper. But a number of Weekend Journal writers complain that her single-minded vision, as well as confusion over whether the section is a magazine or a newspaper, is driving writers and editors away.

The latest departures are veteran Journal reporter Patrick Reilly, who just joined the section over the summer. He’s now left to work for the public relations company Robinson Lerer & Montgomery. Business travel columnist Danielle Reed just put in her papers, too, heading to the Daily News to write about real estate. Reporter Asra Nomani is taking a book leave. And that’s just in the last month.

Out of a staff of approximately two dozen or so reporters, editors and assistants, nine writers and editors (Mr. Reilly, Ms. Reed, Ms. Nomani, Eileen Kinsella, David Crook, Stefan Fatsis, Thomas Goetz, Paulo Prada and Michelle Green) have bailed on the section in the last 20 months-some to go to other parts of the paper, and two to go on book leave.

Staff members said a large part of Weekend Journal’s problem is its hybrid nature. It’s half newspaper, with reporters doing their own reporting and fact checking, which apparently surprised some of the magazine writers Ms. Lipman had hired. But it’s also very much like a magazine, with copy churned through an editing mill, until it ultimately takes on the editor’s vision. That apparently surprised many Journal writers assigned to the Weekend section, who were used to fast edits and their copy turning out pretty much as they filed it.

“I felt a huge amount of pressure to get stories to turn out the way they wanted them to,” said Ms. Green, a food writer hired from People ; she left in February after a year and is now at Good Housekeeping. “I felt extremely dishonest. I had to prove stories that I didn’t think were true.”

“We don’t agree,” said Ms. Lipman.

Staff members also griped about the section’s agenda, which they say revels in the bull market but is contemptuous of its gross excesses. Parody headlines have circulated via e-mail through the office (“10 Best Greyhound Terminals in America: Where do You Get Champagne Service?”). There was a running joke among the staff about what the section features: “What sucks this week: going to the Bahamas sucks, cars suck …”

“Stories come in as a bona fide journalistic idea and come out as a Weekend story-a lament on the problem of being rich,” complained one source familiar with the section.

Ms. Green said editors had a negative take on the food beat, asking for stories with the themes, “It’s poison, it’ll kill you, and the chefs are all crooks.”

“Over the course of two years, we have had normal turnover,” said Ms. Lipman. “We have a lot of outside media groups trying to poach our people because they’re getting great clips.” She thought it was unfair to include people who move elsewhere in the paper, since The Journal often promotes from within. “We have really high standards and everyone currently on staff meets those high standards,” said Ms. Lipman.

As for complaints about the amount of editing, she said, “It’s important to have high standards, obviously. The same high standards as the rest of the paper.”

She also denied that the section is “focused on the money or consumerism.” “We write a lot about religion and philanthropy and fitness and health,” she said.

Shortly after an aggrieved churchgoer named Dennis Heiner smeared white paint on Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary painting at the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Sensation exhibit on Dec. 16, representatives from Magnum Photos notified the city’s daily newspapers that it had exclusive photos. One of its photographers happened to be on hand to capture the act of vandalism. Bidding for the photos opened at $2,500.

According to a senior editorial source at the Daily News , editors at the paper were faxed that price-and then weren’t offered a chance to bid again. A spokesman for The New York Times said, “We did not bid. We were given a price and asked if we would pay it, and we said Yes. In this case, we already agreed to buy it, but the Post offered more to the photographer or the agency.”

“The picture was offered around and, yeah, we paid the highest amount for it. We thought it was a fabulous picture,” said Stuart Marques, managing editor for news at the Post . He wouldn’t comment on the price, but Off the Record learned the sale price was more than $12,000 for two day’s use. One ran on the Post ‘s cover.

David Strettell, the director of the editorial department at Magnum , wouldn’t comment on negotiations for the photo beyond saying that there was more than money involved. “It’s also the play of the photo,” he said.

The book review section of one of our national newspapers has gone local. Dec. 19 marked the last day The Washington Post ‘s Book World was available by mail subscription. The section, which reviews 2,000 books in its 51 issues annually, had 2,800 mail subscribers. It is still available, tucked in the Sunday paper, and can be obtained on-line.

“It was not our decision here at Book World, as you can imagine, but the decision of our president, Bo Jones,” said Marie Arana, the book review’s editor. “As it was explained to me by Bo, we actually pay more to fulfill these subscriptions than we earn.”

Boisfeuillet Jones Jr., president of The Washington Post , said, “We’re changing our production and billing systems, which makes [mail to fewer than 3,000 subscribers] more expensive. We’ve invested a lot in the product, but it’s become a drain to mail to subscribers. You can still get it on”

Still, that doesn’t strike some bookish types as the right medium. “A lot of bookstore owners from around the country relied on us, more than other book sections,” said Ms. Arana. “They can access us on the Web, but as more than one bookseller has said to me, ‘You can’t take that to the bathroom.'”

Mr. Jones’ response? “I can’t argue with that.”

-Elizabeth Manus

The advertisement begins: “For the first time in nearly 75 years of publishing, The New Yorke r, a magazine that prizes literary excellence, will award prizes for literary excellence. And we’re asking our readers to be the judges. Who’s better qualified?”

Well, how about the editors of the magazine?

Of course, that would be so only if this were a true book award. Lest there be any doubt this is The New Yorker ‘s effete version of Wingo, note the “prize” for readers’ votes: entry into a drawing to win a trip to the London Sunday Times Hay-on-Wye Festival of Literature next May in Wales.

Voters get to cast their votes, with no guarantee they have read either the books they have selected nor the ones they are supposed to be judging against. But literary and fiction editor Bill Buford said The New Yorker ‘s readers are “probably the most literate and well-read magazine readers in the country, if not the world. They are like the superintelligence of the country.” Allowing them to judge the book prizes “is what makes the award different.” Yet to call the award the New Yorker Readers’ Book Awards, said Mr. Buford, “would be bludgeonly inelegant.”

New Yorker editor David Remnick seemed not a whit concerned that polled awards would compromise the magazine’s literary franchise. “A literary prize in and of itself is not literature … Always the most important thing about what we’re doing is the magazine itself. The idea was to draw readers into it. The most important thing is that we publish a magazine they love and can trust.”

He added, “We go in with the full understanding that literature is a subjective sport; and that book awards are tertiary to the real enterprise, which is writing and reading. There’s no harm done to the reputation or the principles of the magazine.”

Mr. Buford was of the same opinion. “Does this affect its autonomous literary integrity? I don’t think it’s related. You make a literary reputation by doing a literary thing. This is not an act of publication.”

The New Yorker ‘s editors do play a role in the contest: They selected the 15 semifinalists, five each in the categories of best fiction, nonfiction and poetry collection in 1999. Mr. Buford, editorial director Henry Finder and poetry editor Alice Quinn chaired the three-person nominating committees.

An independent firm collecting the ballots has received some 10,000 so far, according to magazine spokesman Perri Dorset. The last day to vote is Jan. 14. The book award winners will be announced in a private ceremony a month later, on the day the magazine’s 75th anniversary issue hits newsstands. Each winner will receive a cash prize of $10,000. Will the annual award be back next year? “I don’t know,” said Mr. Buford. “I know we’d like to.”

-Elizabeth Manus Trouble at The Wall Street Journal ‘s Weekend Section