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Paper Shredder

Shortly after nine in the morning on April 28, about two dozen reporters and editors in The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau assembled for the weekly staff meeting led by the D.C. bureau chief, John Bussey. Seated on couches in the bureau’s wood-paneled parlor, the staffers waited to begin a conference call with Robert Thomson, the Journal’s publisher.

The mood was uncomfortable. Only a week had passed since the paper’s managing editor, Marcus Brauchli, had resigned under pressure from Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the Journal’s corporate parent, News Corp. Brauchli’s decision to accept millions of dollars in return for signing a non-disclosure agreement had triggered paroxysms of anger inside the Journal newsroom. “We’re a business newspaper, so we know a sell-out when we see one,” one angry Journal staffer told me.

With Brauchli’s ouster, Thomson, who was appointed by Murdoch in December 2007, is now acting as both publisher and de facto managing editor, at least until Murdoch selects a replacement. The conference call, along with nearly a dozen similar meetings with Journal employees that week, was part of an effort to communicate to the editorial staff Murdoch’s unfolding plans for the paper.

Since News Corp. completed the $5 billion takeover of the paper last year, Murdoch has signaled his desire for the Journal to be a conservative paper of record to rival The New York Times, hoping to serve business-minded readers who want a single source of news, be it the meltdown at Bear Stearns, floods in the Midwest, or a car bombing in Baghdad. On the call, according to staffers who participated, Thomson reiterated his and Murdoch’s interest in international and political coverage and praised a page-one piece about Bill Clinton’s increasing presence on the campaign trail, which ran in April, as the type of story he likes.

But many Journal staffers remain confused over where Murdoch is taking the paper and whether, as a business proposition, a Journal that tries to be all things to all people will risk ceding finance-focused readers to the resurgent Financial Times or even the invigorated business section in The New York Times. As one Journal staffer puts it: “The only question people were really interested in is, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ ”

In recent weeks, a rough portrait of Murdoch’s Journal has emerged. According to staffers who attended Thomson’s presentations, he explained that Murdoch wants the Journal to carry more news, shorter stories, snappier headlines, and increasing political and general-interest coverage (Thomson recently added four pages for international stories to the paper’s front section). In late April, for example, the paper ran a pair of news stories on the Mississippi River floods, which one staffer notes would have been uncommon just months ago. When Murdoch made a surprise visit to the Journal’s D.C. bureau on March 7, he told staffers that the paper should cover non-business stories like the Virginia Tech shooting or the Minneapolis bridge collapse. Recently, to augment its general-assignment reporting muscle, the Journal poached Los Angeles Times reporter Stephanie Simon and New York Times reporter Leslie Eaton. In a meeting with the Weekend Journal staff on April 25, Thomson also discussed the idea of tapping marquee writers, such as Ian Buruma, to write long essays for the paper’s Saturday edition.

Murdoch has taken a keen interest in the Washington bureau. Already, the bureau has added two additional staffers, hiring Susan Schmidt and Elizabeth Williamson from The Washington Post. And, one week in April, the Journal’s veteran political reporter Jackie Calmes scored three front-page bylines, a feat she says she had never before accomplished in her 18-year career at the paper. “At the Journal, the politics coverage was always the stepchild,” Calmes says. “Now I feel, for the first time, that I’m part of the core coverage.”

But the push for more spot news has left many staffers concerned over the fate of the Journal’s signature front-page features, which are often investigative pieces running more than 2,000 words. In the past, reporters often spent days crafting story memos and shaping story ideas even before presenting them to editors. But, in the conference call with the D.C. bureau on April 28, Thomson signaled that story memos shouldn’t run longer than 400 words, leaving some to surmise he’s less interested in long-form narrative. During another telephone exchange with the Journal’s bureau chiefs the next day, Thomson dismissed speculation that Murdoch was planning to kill the “A-Hed,” the quirky human-interest columns that have covered topics from the difficulty of spelling the word “millennium” (during the y2k craze) to feuding hair salons in Detroit. In response to a question about how far along Murdoch was in his campaign to reinvent the Journal, Thomson said, “we’re a six to seven on a scale of ten,” according to one participant on the call.

Thomson has also raised the specter that there would soon be a restructuring of the editing ranks. “They want a much more reporter-driven paper,” one staffer says. Historically, the Journal has stood apart for its ranks of editors and bureau chiefs, who closely supervised teams of reporters and shepherded copy up the chain of command to New York. While Thomson didn’t provide a specific number, Journal staffers speculate that as many as 40 to 60 editors could be laid off or reassigned. A Dow Jones spokesperson declined to comment.

Thomson has
dealt with newsroom upheaval before. In March 2002, Murdoch appointed him to run the Times of London, where he refashioned the 217-year-old broadsheet into a hard-charging tabloid. A native Australian like Murdoch, Thomson can be disdainful of critiques from the journalistic establishment

But he’s also appeared to show disdain for the paper he’s manning now. After Murdoch named the 47-year-old publisher of the Journal in December, some staffers sensed that Thomson approached the job not with respect for the institution but with a kind of condescension and a relish for changing it. “It seems as if he has a grudge against the Journal. He tried to take us down a notch,” one staffer says, recounting an April 28 meeting Thomson held with the staff of the Money and Investing section.

In his call with the bureau chiefs on April 29, Thomson said that Murdoch intends to announce a new managing editor within weeks, not months. Thomson has told staffers that he wants a “renaissance man” and a reporter with extensive overseas experience. Journal staffers say that the leading internal candidates are D.C. bureau chief Bussey, Money and Investing editor Nick Deogun, and assistant managing editor Alan Murray.

Many staffers believe Murdoch will look externally to fill the top newsroom slot. Last month, Gawker floated the idea that New York Times mergers and acquisitions reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin is a possible candidate. Many Journal staffers dismiss the rumor, and the source of the idea turns out to be Vanity Fair media columnist Michael Wolff, who is writing a book about Murdoch and the Journal. (Wolff confirms that he had heard the tip “from a couple of people” and passed it on.)

Still, whenever the announcement is made, staffers understand where power resides in the newsroom. “No matter who is chosen,” one staffer says, “it’s likely Thomson will be pulling the strings.”

Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

By Gabriel Sherman