Departing WSJ Writer: 'All That Is "Urgent" Has Doubtless Stifled the Boundless Creativity of the Journal Staff'
Wall Street Journal feature writer Joshua Prager was known to work painstakingly slow. But the pieces he produced for the front page were always memorable, such as his investigation into the anonymous Iranian photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980. He announced that he's leaving the paper because he doesn't fit in any more. In the farewell that he sent his colleagues, he lobbed a few attacks at Robert Thomson, the new editor of the paper since it was bought by Rupert Murdoch. "URGENT" is a new wire service copy system that Thomson announced a couple weeks ago.
From: Prager, Josh
Sent: Friday, April 03, 2009 2:59 PM
To: WSJ All News Staff
After almost 13 years at this paper, it's time for me to say goodbye.
I started here as a news assistant. I handed out the sked, answered
phone calls and screamed "Goodnight Pittsburgh!" in the middle of the
newsroom when a bureau sought permission to head home for the evening.
Late nights, I headed to 43rd Street and relayed by phone the headlines
of a warm New York Times.
I was in awe of all around me. I parroted their beautifully-worded
observations and read their beautifully-written stories. (Jim White
steered me toward Horwitz, Kotlowitz, Suskind, et al.) And I dreamed of
writing one of those wonderful 300-word quirks that ran in the
lower-left corner of the second-front.
It took me about 30 days to write my first orphan, a word/day ratio I
would never much improve. I found mentors whose instructions (activate
verbs, simplify language, etc.) I taped to my desk. I began to write
features, many of which concerned the three worlds I knew
best—disability, Judaism and baseball.
The paper made me a reporter and sent me to Atlanta to cover small
business financing. I struggled, writing columns mined from The Wall
Street Journal Guide to Understanding Money & Investing. But when I
wrote a leder about the children's book Goodnight Moon, I at last found
my niche-revealing secrets tied somehow to the historical. And over the
coming years, the paper extended to me an ever-lengthening leash that
let me write what had not been known about a famous home run, photograph
and missing Swede.
I knew how lucky I was. At times, I was embarrassed by my good fortune
and worked hard to feel I merited it.
Perhaps unavoidably, things changed. Soon after News Corp. began to
court the Bancrofts, Rupert Murdoch stated that our front-page stories
were too long while Robert Thomson said some had the "gestation of a
llama." Mine certainly did. The paper and I were no longer a good fit.
I knew that newspapers were dying daily, that the future of long-form
journalism was at risk. And I knew how lucky I was to still have my job.
But as my recent story on Raoul Wallenberg was cut from the three parts
we'd agreed upon to two to one, I also knew that it was time for me to
leave the paper, particularly once I learned that some in management had
expressed the same opinion.
Onward. I've applied for a journalism fellowship and plan on writing a
book about disability, about the 1990 bus accident that broke my neck
and initially left me a quadriplegic. I'm excited.
I will miss The Wall Street Journal and the incredible adventures it let
me take. I have loved working here and am forever grateful to the
endless folks at the paper who helped me at every turn and taught me
everything I know about journalism. They include Robin Haynes, Melinda
Beck, Mike Miller, Kevin Salwen, Hilary Stout, Dan Hertzberg, Cathy
Panagoulias, Paul Steiger, John Blanton and Mike Siconolfi. Thank you.
Among the many things I learned here was that reporters need to fight
for themselves. (I was honored, for example, to help see to it last year
that reporters do not owe a percentage of any book advance or sales to
the paper unless they enter into a voluntary marketing agreement with
the Journal.) And I hope that my incredible colleagues, despite their
understandable fears given the state of our industry, will find ways to
speak up when necessary. It is certainly in the interest of any business
to know what is on the minds of its employees and perhaps an anonymous
but public sounding board can be established by the union or the paper
itself. (It might also help do away with leaks.)
Further, the worship of byline and word counts and all that is "urgent"
has doubtless stifled the boundless creativity of the Journal staff. I
hope the paper will address this problem. Implementing some version of
the rule at 3M that lets employees spend 15 percent of their time on
"projects of their own choosing" would benefit morale and yield
Please keep in touch. You can reach me at [Redacted].