The End-Of-Story Wars

As I’m writing this in February of 2017, editors and reporters at the Wall Street Journal are fighting a not-too-secret war over how to cover Donald Trump’s Presidency.

We’re going to skip over discussing Trump the commander-in-chief (Psst: There are literally millions of places on the internet you can do exactly that!) and focus on the goings-on at the Journal.

Long story short, there’s tension between reporters and leadership at the Wall Street Journal over covering Trump and the White House. The Journal’s owned by Trump’s friend Rupert Murdoch, staff at the WSJ are demoralized after a recent round of layoffs, and the paper’s top editor, Gerard Baker, appears to be working on getting the newspaper to have more positive coverage of Trump after being pretty rough on him during the election.

Reporters feel like they’re being stifled, and that they’re being subtly (or not so subtly) encouraged to underreport news that’s less than flattering to President Trump. Editors are saying, in effect, that a publication can have its own editorial voice and tone.

This has led by some creative efforts by reporters at the Journal to report, as they see it, both sides of the news. According to David Leonhardt at the New York Times:

Reporters and editors have become accustomed to the “shaving off the edges” of Trump-related stories, one said, especially in headlines and initial paragraphs. The insubordination shows up in later paragraphs, where reporters include harder-hitting information.

There’s one big challenge, however — as many reporters and editors know, readers rarely read a story to the end. That’s not a slight on a writer’s skill or the quality of the publication; it’s simple human nature.

This means that, in many cases, the lede is buried on an important story in order to publish information that directly impacts the reader. In this case, it’s being done to make sure information makes it to the reader that would otherwise be excluded.

But it means that a reader is unlikely to encounter that information unless it’s picked up by a social media commentator or another publication.

Back when I wrote Mediabistro’s FishbowlNY blog (Now Adweek’s Fishbowl), the media landscape was a little different. Facebook wasn’t the main way people encountered news, and Rupert Murdoch was still in the process of acquiring the Wall Street Journal. But there was still a big problem that persists today: Making sure customers are able to navigate the news they find online.

My personal suspicion is that we’ll see writers at many, many publications including the “harder-hitting information” in later paragraphs over the coming years — both for Trump-related stories and non-Trump related stories. It’s part of journalism entering some very weird years (and that’s a subject for another post) and part of making content shorter and stickier in order to appease the social media gods.

But in the meantime, remember: If you’re reading an article, those last paragraphs might be more important than you think.