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The Path That Led To Murdoch

By David Ignatius

At the Wall Street Journal of the mid-1980s, reporters would sometimes joke to each other, "This is too good to last." And they were right.

Circulation had roughly doubled from 1976 to 1985, and advertisers were lining up to buy space. My foreign editor at the Journal once admonished me to spend expense-account money as carefully as if it were my own, and then added with a wink: "Of course, you realize that you have an income of several hundred million dollars a year."

Those days were sweet: The Journal had created America's first national newspaper, and people hungry for good journalism were reading it coast to coast. I remember covering a United Steelworkers convention in Las Vegas and watching all those beefy union men sitting in the lobby reading the Journal. WSJ reporters in those days didn't get bylines on most stories inside the paper, which meant we threw ourselves all the more into the bylined columns on Page 1.

The front page was a gray wall of type, with no photographs, but the stories sparkled with color. Offbeat features in the middle column, known as A-heds, actually brought a laugh -- the rarest emotion on a newspaper front page. Occasional first-person A-heds chronicled the adventures of Journal reporters trying their hand as lady weightlifters, massage-parlor receptionists or professional disco dancers.

The rising chief executive when I left the paper in 1985 was the best writer any of us knew, Peter Kann. We used to study his dispatches from Asia to see how the master had done it: how he reported on a case of elephanticide at a Vietnamese zoo in the months after the Tet Offensive; how he was ordered to leave the besieged city of Dhaka during the India-Pakistan war and cabled back, "Message unreceived." He won a Pulitzer Prize for that coverage. He was destined to run the company, too.

It seemed too good to last, and it was. Kann remained the wisest of editorial counselors, and he had unwavering support from the reticent family of owners, the Bancrofts. But the business acumen and good luck that had powered the rise of Dow Jones petered out during Kann's tenure as chief executive. As the company's economic fortunes declined, so did some of its journalism. The A-heds stopped being funny, and then they disappeared. The left-hand "leaders," as we called them, which once offered some of the clearest analysis of America and the world, became thumpingly ordinary. Then they, too, disappeared -- in one of the series of redesigns that destroyed the look and feel of the old Journal without creating a strong new identity.

The Journal's tradition of investigative journalism continued on hard business stories, as in its coverage of Enron. But the Journal no longer dominated coverage of non-business subjects, such as the mob (as with Jonathan Kwitny) or Washington scandals (as with Jerry Landauer) or politics (as with Albert Hunt) or foreign policy (as with Karen Elliot House). The Journal's coverage of these subjects now is solid -- occasionally superb -- but it lacks the panache of the old days, when the business side of the paper was booming, money was rolling in and everyone gloried in taking risks.

The Journal of the mid-1980s was a demonstration of the proposition that good journalism and good business go hand in hand. This was the decade of the Wall Street dealmakers, and the Journal had a managing editor (Norman Pearlstine) and reporter/editor (James B. Stewart) who went after them with the intensity of journalistic Gordon Gekkos. It was a tough, canny paper -- whose front page each morning had more voltage even than the fiery editorial page.

That balance began to change in the 1990s, after Pearlstine and his pal John Huey left for Time Inc. The Journal's editorial page increasingly did its own reporting, with equal portions of journalistic hustle and ideological spin, and it often overshadowed the news side. I suspect that helped undermine the franchise. Advertisers, in the end, perhaps weren't enthralled with a newspaper distinguished by vitriolic right-wing attack editorials.

For Journal alumni, the past decade has been like watching a car wreck in slow motion. The people driving the car were our friends, the journalists we respected most. Now an ambulance of sorts, in the person of Rupert Murdoch, has arrived to pick up the bodies.

People will bemoan what Murdoch does to the Journal, no matter what it is. They will say that he is killing a great newspaper. But the sad part of this story is that "the empire," as we reporters once liked to call it, was already dying -- and that so many of its wounds were self-inflicted.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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