‘Greater New York’ grows up

Michael Amon and Heather Haddon in foreground, Ted Mann in background. (WSJ)
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As the Chris Christie “Bridgegate” scandal was beginning to metastasize in early January, there was a palpable sense of frustration in certain corners of The Wall Street Journal’s newsroom.  

The Record was being lavished with praise for having “owned” the story, as New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan put it. The North Jersey daily had seized on it first, noting in a Sept. 13 column that lane closures on the George Washington Bridge were wreaking havoc on the town of Fort Lee, and the paper had won the day with an explosive Jan. 8 newsbreak about emails that revealed one of Gov. Chris Christie’s top aides had apparently conspired to snarl traffic. Between the start of the fiasco and the game-changing email revelations, other outlets, including the Times and The Star-Ledger, had also taken a bite out of the story.

But it was the Journal, led by reporters Ted Mann and Heather Haddon, that had one of the earliest significant scoops and arguably drove the story forward more than anyone else. “It’s a Wall Street Journal story through and through,” a member of the newsroom told Capital.

The Journal did get some pats on the back. “Credit where it’s due to @TMannWSJ who broke the bridge story months ago and kept at it,” tweeted Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski. “Heather, do you think of yourself as the Woodward or the Bernstein of Bridgegate?,” MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell asked Haddon, noting that the Journal had done “the article” that really sent Camp Christie into a conniption.

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The Journal’s Bridgegate coverage did not originate from the paper’s muscular main report, but from Greater New York, the scrappy metro supplement it launched on April 26, 2010. And it was perhaps the biggest coup yet for a section that had once been viewed as the stepchild of an august business broadsheet.

“It’s a milestone in the development of this section,” deputy Journal editor-in-chief Matt Murray said in an interview.

Greater New York was a linchpin in Rupert Murdoch’s big makeover of the Journal. When the ambitious News Corp. chairman bought the paper from the Bancroft family in 2007, he immediately set about refashioning it in ways that would increase its sex appeal outside the trading floors of Wall Street. General-interest news about national and foreign affairs was ramped up. Lifestyle coverage became increasingly robust. By 2010, Murdoch and his lieutenants had another trick up their sleeves: A New York section that would ensnare regional advertisers while giving commuters and city-dwellers more of a reason to pick up the Journal from the newsstand. The plan was seen as a flaming arrow aimed directly into the front-yard of Murdoch’s main adversary—Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s New York Times.

At first, Greater New York was met with a yawn: high in quality and nice to look at, but not much to talk about. Four years later, the section has hardly supplanted its primary competitor. And the tabloids, which have never shared much DNA with the Journal anyway, can still run circles around most of the biggest spot-news stories in town. But with its sharp and consistent coverage of local politics, education, real estate, transportation, sports, society, culture and the arts, Greater New York has proven more of a must-read than an also-ran.

“It’s certainly a must-read for me,” said local-news anchor Pat Kiernan, whose daily “In the Papers” segment is perhaps the most popular feature of NY1’s morning newscast. “If you were inclined to pick up only one paper, and The Wall Street Journal was your paper of choice, I think you’d feel like you were well served in terms of getting a sufficient helping of local news.”

From a business standpoint, it’s unclear how successful the venture has been. Ken Doctor, a media analyst, noted that Greater New York was primarily a print play, and that the Journal’s losses in print circulation might suggest it’s “not working.” But a spokeswoman for the Journal said “revenue has consistently grown” and regional advertisers like New York Presbyterian, N.Y.U. Langone Medical Center and HSBC “have been very supportive.” She wouldn’t say whether the section makes money, but the Journal’s overall profit is in the 5 to 8 percent range, according to Doctor.

The unit’s value is bigger than just local coverage: In the Journal newsroom, Greater New York’s roughly 40-person staff has given the Journal an edge on certain national blockbusters where it previously wouldn’t have had much of a footprint. When news of last year’s marathon bombing hit the wires, four Greater New York reporters jumped on the first train to Boston. Much of the same was true during the massacre in Newtown, Conn. and during superstorm Sandy, where the section’s reporters were stationed all along the New Jersey and New York coasts.

“There’s no question that the Journal’s coverage of Sandy was far deeper and richer than it would have been without Greater New York, same with Newtown and the Boston bombing,” said Murray, who was one of the Journal editors who helped get Greater New York off the ground. “Now the onus is on us to continue the momentum. We’re keen to take on some more ambitious investigative and enterprise type stuff now that we’ve proven we can break some glass.”

Their competitors are taking note.

“This is the best work I’ve seen from them so far,” said Times metro editor Wendell Jamieson. “Who would have thought a traffic jam would be the biggest story of the year? Kudos to them for figuring that out.”

 

This article appeared in the February edition of Capital magazine.