‘Journal’ Cuts Hurt Consumer Reporting
When the Wall Street Journal’s top editor announced Thursday a “full transformation of our newsroom,” one that would include closing bureaus and cutting dozens of jobs, one change drew particular ire: The paper would be “scaling back significantly” its personal-finance team.
For years, that team has been regarded as a pioneer of consumer reporting — that plain-English brand of service journalism written for the middle class. That America’s most-circulated newspaper would step away from it seemed to many not just a loss for the newsroom, but for the wallets of readers across the country.
“Prediction,” tweeted Helaine Olen, a New York journalist and author of Pound Foolish, on the dark side of the personal-finance advice industry. “A lot more consumers are going to get ripped off thanks to what happened to (the personal-finance team) today.”
Like many news organizations, the Journal has weathered several rounds of deep cuts amid an upheaval for the traditional media business and has fought to refocus its offerings for online audiences as revenue from print advertising shrinks.
But losing the Journal’s guidance on saving, spending and financial literacy, for readers who might otherwise manage their money alone, seems to come at a moment when average Americans can use all the help they can get.
“There are ever-larger heaps of responsibility being unloaded on ever younger people: six-figure decisions about college, the necessity of saving for retirement, buying health insurance by law,” said Ron Lieber, a former Journal reporter and the Your Money columnist for The New York Times.
“On the other hand, you have an explosion of choices, and people who want to help you make these decisions, not all of whom always have your best interests at heart,” Lieber added. “To me, that’s a recipe for more coverage, not less.”
The Journal’s editor-in-chief, Gerard Baker, told employees in a Thursday memo that the paper would be “consolidating some areas of coverage … and discontinuing completely some of what we do” amid dropping advertising revenue and a media environment that is changing “at a dizzying pace.”
The Journal, owned by Dow Jones and its parent company News Corp., plans to slash its small-business and New York-based economics teams, close bureaus in Prague and Helsinki and shrink others across Europe and Asia.
The Journal plans to create jobs in mobile development, data-driven journalism, interactive graphics and other digitally focused growth areas, Baker said. The paper, he added, would “continue to provide high quality reporting and commentary on topics of personal financial interest to our readers.”
A Dow Jones spokesman did not comment beyond that memo, but did point to five job openings for reporters, columnists and editors covering taxes, consumer finance and institutional investing.
Jason Zweig, the Journal’s popular Intelligent Investor columnist, tweeted Thursday that the paper’s “personal-finance coverage isn’t being eliminated; the rumors of our death have been exaggerated.” Karen Damato, the Journal’s deputy editor of personal finance, tweeted Friday, “Hopefully our bylines (and paychecks!) will continue.”
Personal-finance advice is far from extinct. The digital era has seen a proliferation of blogs such as the Billfold and Consumerist in offering financial guidance, budgeting tools and tips for consumer self-defense.
But the Journal, with its location at the heart of financial America and outsize spending on financial coverage, offered the kind of critical investigative bent on issues, such as investing risks, credit-card fees and health insurance, that tended to make it the paper of record for such topics.
“It takes a lot of resources, it takes a lot of commitment … and it’s work. Hard work. You need somebody to back you up,” Olen said. “That’s one of the reasons this is such a tragedy. When you looked at the Wall Street Journal you pretty much knew what you were getting. … But most people don’t have the expertise to sort out what has or hasn’t been vetted, and they will just simply never know.”
Trudy Lieberman, a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review and longtime consumer-affairs reporter, said the harder-hitting journalism of the 1960s and ’70s first struggled in the ’80s amid resistance from advertisers of financial instruments such as mortgages and mutual funds.
The reporting has lived on as self-help guides for the consumer movement, though funding it through advertising has remained a challenge.
“The wealthier people are going to find this information because they can pay for advisers,” Lieberman said. “Who loses? The average Joe loses.”