WSJ’s paywall isn’t stopping it from getting Pulitzers

CJR | The Atlantic

Following a post Wednesday by Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman pointing out the Journal newsroom’s Pulitzer shutout (Bret Stephens did win for commentary this year), another debate about the decline in the paper’s longform storytelling has cropped up.

Starkman, a former Journal reporter, hypothesized that the paper’s poor track record at winning Pulitzers could be directly tied to the decline of projects longer than 2,500 words since Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in 2007 — coincidentally the same year the Journal won Pulitzers for public service and international reporting. (Although shut out as a news finalist this year, the Journal has been in the running eight times since Murdoch’s purchase of the paper.)

A common trait among Pulitzer projects is that they are ambitious, require extensive reporting and careful writing, carry some significance beyond the normal gathering of news, and/or have some kind of impact on the real world, like, as I’ve written, fixing Walter Reed. Basically, this is work that takes a long time to do and requires some length in which to do it. And just because a project has all those elements obviously doesn’t [mean] it’s going to win anything. Public-service projects have to be a routine and done for their own sake.

Murdoch’s oft-stated antipathy to the concept of longform narrative public-interest journalism was the main reason some of us opposed his taking over the Journal in the first place.

Starkman offers evidence from CJR’s Ryan Chittum, published in Oct. 2011, that shows the precipitous decline in the number of Journal stories longer than 2,500 words since Murdoch took over. Chittum also noted in January the overall decline  in long-form writing was shared by the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times (but not the New York Times).

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal suggested Wednesday one possible culprit was a desire to maintain an Internet-friendly repository of content, which means more shorter stores and fewer longer ones.

I wonder how the Journal’s hard paywall might change their incentives for producing longer work. Does the upside of these kinds of stories get dampened because their stories can’t be shared as widely and easily? Perhaps it’s more important to satisfy the core business news audience who pay for the (digital and print) publication with shorter news and analysis.

Chittum, also a former Journal reporter, responded quickly, pointing out the Journal has had a paywall since 1996. He even added markers to the same graphic Starkman used to clarify his point, pointing out longform journalism began to drop off in 2007.

We know from all the evidence that Rupert Murdoch and his editors wanted to get rid of or sharply reduce the WSJ’s long stories. They did away with half the paper’s leders—the long front-page narratives—almost immediately to open up the front page to commodity news.

“There’s no question,” Chittum writes, “about what or who caused the WSJ’s longform fall-off.”

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