Despite Murdoch (or maybe because of Murdoch), the Journal is on a tear.

Media criticism.
June 13 2008 6:09 PM

Is the Journal Getting … Better?

Despite Murdoch (or maybe because of Murdoch), it's on a tear.

The Wall Street Journal. Click image to expand.

Back in January, I griped about how genocidal tyrant Rupert Murdoch, having just won the pink slip to the Wall Street Journal, was already ruining it. I based my riff on an e-mail observation from my friend Ben Compaine, in which he noted that the Journal had abandoned its tight focus on business and was now larding its pages with mediocre political and international coverage. (See the content analysis from the Project for Excellence in Journalism that proves my point.)

Call it subtraction by addition.

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Murdoch's design—stated and restated—was to knock the New York Times off its perch as the first newspaper the elites reach for each morning. Fat chance of that, I thought, as the Murdoch-ized Journal landed on my doorstep week after week.

And then some time around the beginning of the month, my disposition changed, and the Journal moved to the head of my daily newspaper line—not because of its political and international coverage but because it was swinging hard again in its traditional wheelhouse to produce great enterprise journalism.

Stick your hand in your recycling pile for a Journal, and I guarantee you'll come up with a winner. Among my recent personal favorites is its series "The Fall of Bear Stearns" by Kate Kelly and "Countrywide Friends Got Good Loans," which ultimately put an end to Jim Johnson's veep-vetting, by Glenn R. Simpson and James R. Hagerty. Today's piece by Timothy Aeppel about outsourced manufacturing returning to the United States because of onerous shipping costs reeks of smartness.

Who knew successful Christers were spreading the gospel with franchise marketing tricks? Alexandra Alter, take a bow. Susanne Craig has been doing strong work on the Lehman Brothers story. Other keepers: Mark Maremont on the big payouts due to CEOs—when they die; Joann S. Lublin on the security bills footed by corporations for their CEOs (I'd love to see this mashed up—extravagant security bills for dead CEOs!); Ethan Smith on the battle inside Live Nation over its "360 deals" with Madonna and Jay-Z; Edward Taylor on Europeans saving money by buying European luxury cars in the United States and shipping them back home; Jesse Drucker on billionaire Philip Anschutz's "tax strategy"; and Robert A. Guth on the Gates-Ballmer love spat. (I know I've missed a ton of great pieces, so forgive me if your favorite isn't on this short list.)

Why a sudden Journal renaissance, or at least my perception of a Journal renaissance? Maybe the Journal seems refreshed because the primary wrap-up has largely evicted political news from Page One, and into that vacancy has dropped what I consider the good stuff. Was the good stuff there all the time, but I just wasn't noticing it?

On an entirely speculative tangent, maybe Robert Thomson, who added managing editor to his existing publisher title last month, has started to appreciate the newspaper's real strengths. Or maybe it's an accident. Or a trap set by Murdoch to lure unsuspecting readers. Regardless, if the Journal continues on this course, a year's subscription at $99 will continue to be the best deal American newshounds can purchase. (The Journal pushes a bunch of different prices for a subscription. I got my last one for $90, I think, and it included online access. If you discover a cheaper offer, e-mail me and I'll update.)

On a negative note. How well does the Wall Street Journal cover its corporate cousin Fox News Channel? Based on today's performance, not so well. High in a story hooked to the "Obama's Baby Mama" controversy on Fox News isthis mindbender of a passage:

In a campaign that includes the first viable African-American presidential candidate, the lines of appropriate speech have become fuzzy. News organizations are under pressure from a broad network of self-appointed watchdogs, including organized groups like Media Matters and individuals. These watchdogs are likely to remain vigilant about gaffes, misstatements and potentially biased language through the November vote. [Emphasis added.]

What exactly does the Journal mean when it reports that "the lines of appropriate speech have become fuzzy" in this campaign season? Does it mean that in previous campaign seasons it would have been OK for a Fox News analyst to joke about assassinating a candidate, as Liz Trotta did (YouTube)? (She apologized, by the way.) Or in years past would it have been OK to flash a little screen text referring to a presidential candidate's wife as a "baby mama" (YouTube), as Fox News did? Or would it have been OK to call a fist-bump a "terrorist fist jab" (YouTube)?

I'm not indicting Fox News as the only channel that "gaffes"—if that's what to call it—but questioning the Journal's characterization of the "lines" having grown "fuzzy." I await an explanation.

******

The Journal's quirky A-heds continue to be a delight. Note to the rotten old bastard: Don't let Managing Editor Robert Thomson marginalize them, as Gawker has predicted he will. Seen a great Journal piece not mentioned here? Send link to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.) Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Journal in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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