‘A Slow-Rolling Nightmare’: Inside the Revolt at the Wall Street Journal

A dragged-out series of slashing job cuts at the Wall Street Journal paired with the new leader's intense focus on growing online readership and charges of eroding editorial standards have led to mounting concerns among current and former newsroom staffers about the direction of one of the nation's preeminent news organizations.

Eleven current and former newsroom veterans, who spoke to National Review on a condition of anonymity, said that Emma Tucker, the Journal's new editor-in-chief, appears to lack a basic understanding of American government, politics, and culture. They say she seems to be prioritizing less serious lifestyle stories with snappy headlines over hard-hitting accountability journalism. 

And they worry that several moves she's made — including cutting jobs from the team responsible for editing sensitive stories and weeding out any hints of bias, and hiring a Washington, D.C., bureau chief who just published a book highly critical of former president Donald Trump — could lead to readers losing confidence in a paper that has historically been unique for having high levels of trust from across the political spectrum.  

Tucker, who came to the Journal from the United Kingdom, has painted the changes she's implemented as part of a new "reader-first" strategy aimed at modernizing the highly profitable but sometimes stodgy paper, in part by diversifying its readership beyond its core audience of wealthy, white businessmen. Her team argues that there has never been a push for "less serious" stories. And they say that while change is hard, it is necessary.

Everything Tucker is doing at the Journal is aimed at one goal: "to best position it for the future and to ensure that it will continue to thrive," according to a spokesperson.

But current and former staffers who spoke to National Review say they're baffled by Tucker's decision to dispatch dozens of the Journal's best newsroom employees, including axing dozens of journalists in the D.C. bureau ahead of the 2024 election. And they object to the drawn-out nature of the layoffs, calling them "indefensible" and "like a death by a thousand paper cuts."

Working at the Journal under Tucker has "turned from a dream job to just a slow-rolling nightmare," said one former staffer. Another called morale at the paper, particularly in the D.C. bureau, "the worst of any workplace I've ever been in my career."

"People are fearful of their jobs," the staffer said. "They don't know who's next. They have no confidence in the new leadership."

The most recent cuts took place on May 30, when at least eight staffers in bureaus across the country received invites to an online meeting with a New York editor and a human-resources representative for an "organizational update." On the call, they were quickly and unceremoniously terminated, a process that some called "callous" but at the same time "sterile and official."

The layoffs were aimed mostly at U.S. News, the small, scrappy team of 17 Journal reporters who covered breaking news on the ground across the country. 

During a lunch-hour walkout that day in New York, a throng of union members marched in protest to Tucker's office and posted multi-colored sticky notes filled with complaints on her door.

The U.S. News layoffs came less than four months after what is known internally as "Bloody Thursday," the day in early February when Tucker took a scythe to the Washington, D.C., bureau, slashing the jobs of about 30 newsroom staffers, including chopping jobs from the economics team and eliminating a team focused on Washington's relations with China. 

That was preceded by the removal of the bureau's well-respected chief, Paul Beckett, who was reassigned after staffers say he fought the cuts.

Beckett was replaced as Washington bureau chief by Damian Paletta, a former Washington Post editor fresh off of writing a book critical of Trump's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. In a move that raised eyebrows among some staffers, Paletta included Trump as one of the bureau's four 2024 election-coverage focus areas but left out coverage of Joe Biden, the sitting president.

In an interview with National Review, Paletta said the four topics are informal, and he denied that the bureau is taking it easy on Biden, pointing to a recent story about reports of the president's "slipping" mental acuity.

Tucker has also said goodbye to several other top editors with long histories at the Journal, cut jobs in Asia, called for the paper's highly regarded investigations team to produce more, and eliminated most of the jobs with the paper's standards desk, the editing team responsible for the prepublication review of sensitive stories.

The slimmed-down standards team is still "well resourced," and will still review sensitive stories, but it will no longer serve as another layer of line editing, the Journal spokesperson said. 

Paletta pushed back on the charge that Journal staffers are universally angry or that morale in his bureau is particularly low. 

"I think change is hard," he said. "But I sense a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, personally."

Maybe not coincidentally, the internal discord is spilling out into the public at the same time that the paper's union, the Independent Association of Publishers' Employees, is engaged in acrimonious negotiations with Dow Jones & Company, Inc., the Journal's parent company. 

Staffers say the opposition to Tucker has galvanized support for the union. One said that Tucker has been "the best motivator of union activism in the 85-year history of the IAPE."

The union’s board recently authorized a strike vote, the first in a three-step process before members are allowed to walk off the job. 

"I think we're at a moment where it's unclear what is going to happen with any media entity, but I think the Journal is a rare institution that is critical to people's understanding of the world and this country and the economy," one former staffer said. "I don't think it takes a whole lot to push anything off its axis right now, whether that is sort of click-baity headlines or removing institutional knowledge, or just gutting the core quality of the place."

"I think all of that raises the question, if this kind of universally trusted news source will maintain its credibility."

Different Visions

Tucker, 57, took the helm of the Journal's newsroom in February 2023, becoming the first woman to lead the publication in its more than 130-year history.

She took over from Matt Murray, a 29-year veteran of the paper who had gained a reputation for being risk-averse and cautious — sometimes overly cautious — about the stories the Journal published, and for heavily scrutinizing political pieces coming out of D.C. 

Murray and his deputies were "sensitive to judgments from the conservative part of their readership that we were not playing straight down the middle," one former staffer said.

Tucker does not appear to share those concerns, the staffer added.

"Suggestions that anyone at the Journal would be okay with slanted coverage are outrageous," the paper's spokesperson told National Review in an email. Tucker did not personally respond to a request for comment for this story. 

Before she arrived at the Journal, Tucker headed up the London-based Sunday Times, part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire. That drew some concerns about her readiness to head up a massive newsroom like the Journal's.

"Everybody knew where she came from," one staffer said. 

Rather than exclusively surrounding herself with Journal insiders, Tucker brought with her a cast of young deputies who also had little or no experience living in the U.S. or working in American journalism, including: executive editor David Crow; managing editor Liz Harris; director of visual storytelling Ryan Watts; and associate editor Taneth Evans, who serves as Tucker's chief of staff. 

Some current and former staffers expressed concerns that Tucker and her "British Invasion" crew lack a basic understanding of American government, politics, geography, and culture. 

During one staff meeting, Tucker brushed off questions about not really knowing how Congress worked, according to one former employee. At one point she was surprised to learn that Congress includes two chambers, the House and the Senate, another staffer said. Another former staffer said that in at least one meeting Tucker made a dismissive comment about American gun culture. 

"This is not true," the Journal spokesperson said of the allegations.

Some staffers suggested that Tucker's lack of knowledge of American government and the country's power structures could help to explain the cuts to the D.C. bureau.

While cutting jobs in D.C. may seem like eliminating redundancies, staffers said, reporting on the tech industry in San Francisco or the energy industry in Houston is fundamentally different from covering tech or energy regulation in D.C.

"London is the consolidated financial, economic, political, and cultural capital of the United Kingdom, which is a small country that every corner of which is reachable by train in a few hours. And the United States simply isn't like that," one former employee said. "We're a country that has four or five decentralized power centers across the country. You have high culture in Los Angeles, you have tech in San Francisco, you have the financial markets and other culture in New York, and then you have political power in Washington."

"I just don't think she fully grasps that."

Journalism or Content?

Tucker came to the Journal seeking to modernize the paper and to sharpen its focus on telling stories through the lens of business and money. Several staffers said they were cautiously optimistic about her proposed changes. 

"She said the right things," one former employee said. 

Tucker wanted to woo new readers with livelier writing and more enterprise and investigative stories. Soon after arriving, she dropped the Journal's use of courtesy titles, such as "Mr." and "Ms." She wanted a less byzantine editing process. And she wanted to build up the Journal's analytics tools to better measure online traffic and gauge how readers engaged with their work.

"She would say stuff like, we want to improve the editorial process. We want to do distinctive journalism. We want to be faster. All that at a place as sort of sclerotic as the Wall Street Journal, all that sounded kind of good at first," another former staffer said. "Who doesn't want their stories to be widely read, quickly moved through editing, and sort of having some of the bureaucratic nonsense knocked down?"

But it quickly became evident to many employees that there were significant differences between Tucker's vision for modernizing the Journal and theirs.

"She used a lot of digital publishing buzzwords, like thinking of the product of the newspaper as a content delivery vehicle," a former staffer said. Several current and former staffers said that writers bristled at Tucker describing their journalism as "content."

"It is content, sure, but it's not really how I conceive of it or like to think of it," a former staffer said. "There's a higher public-service mission to it, in my view, anyway."

Another former staffer said that Tucker "needs to be reminded that this is a newspaper and not a content machine."

The Journal spokesperson said it is "untrue" that Tucker views journalism as just "content." 

"Emma continues to stress that the ambition of the Journal is to deliver ambitious, distinct, revelatory journalism to our readers that cannot be found anywhere else," the spokesperson said. "The idea that the Journal is somehow pumping out content without regard for quality or impact is the opposite of everything she's been saying."

Other current and former staffers said that Tucker doesn't appear to have much patience for complex investigative and enterprise stories that require a lot of manpower and take a long time to report. She seems to prefer quicker-turn stories that rely more on leaks from political opposition researchers, they said.

Politico recently reported that Tucker has directed the investigative team to write more "on the news" stories, not just long-term projects. One staffer called the messaging "schizophrenic." 

"They’ve been telling people, 'Do the big stories. We only want big swings, but also we’re counting your bylines,'" the employee said.

"There's been a vast disconnect, I think, between the British version of investigative journalism and the American idea of investigative journalism," said another staffer.

Tucker holds regular all-hands meetings, where she highlights stories that she values. Staffers say she often praises lifestyle stories with snappy headlines that get lots of clicks, like recent features on polyamory and having "great sex" on vacation.

"If you ask me, a lot of them were stupid stories," a former staffer said.

There were meetings where it seemed like everything was about web traffic and audience engagement and less about political fairness, said one staffer. "There was much less stressing of that being important and much more on how many clicks will the story get," the staffer said. 

Reassigning a Respected Leader

By late spring of 2023, a few months into Tucker's tenure, the first dominoes began falling.

Tucker announced that two deputy editors in chief were leaving "after many years of distinguished service," the New York Times reported. Over the summer, Tucker's team started "pulling people out behind the woodshed" and letting them go, "just one at a time — a person here, a person there," according to one former staffer.

But for many, it was Beckett's removal as bureau chief that really turned them against Tucker.

Over more than two decades, Beckett had become an institution at the Journal. A burly man with a Scottish accent, Beckett had spent time as a banking reporter and a bureau chief in London and Asia before taking over in Washington at the outset of the Trump administration.

He was a leader people looked up to, because they sensed he was there for the right reasons, employees said. "If you did important stories, he would have your back," one staffer said. 

"For most of us, Paul Beckett was the kind of person you worked super hard for, because you wanted his respect and you respected him," said another.

At 10:40 a.m. on October 11, Beckett sent bureau staffers an email invite to a "quick midweek staff meeting." It started in five minutes. A couple of dozen people gathered in an open area at the front of the bureau that serves as an informal meeting space.

Beckett stood before his colleagues. He was no longer the bureau chief, he said. It was clear, according to staffers who were there, that it wasn't his decision.

For six months, Beckett had been a champion for Evan Gershkovich, the Journal reporter who has been imprisoned by Russia on false espionage charges. Beckett was reassigned full time to working for Gershkovich's release and to keep his story in the news. 

"Let's hope it is a short-term assignment," he wrote on X. The Journal spokesperson said they “could not be more grateful” to Beckett for his contributions in his new role.

Several current and former Journal staffers who spoke with National Review said that Beckett was ousted because he wasn't on board with Tucker's plans to slash jobs from the bureau.

One called his ouster "amateur hour." Another said it sent a message to the D.C. bureau workers that there was this "looming sword of Damocles over people from that point on."

"Any goodwill that the staff had for her was eviscerated in a heartbeat," another employee said of Tucker, adding that when she dismissed Beckett, "it's like everything hit a f***ing brick wall. It was like, boom, she sucks. And the hits just kept on coming from there."

'Bloody Thursday'

On February 1, less than four months after Beckett's removal, the D.C. workforce received an invitation to another staff meeting, this time from Harris, the Journal's managing editor and a Tucker deputy who had been tagged by some with the epithet "the angel of death."

The meeting was scheduled from 10:30 a.m. to 10:40 a.m.

Harris and other Tucker deputies arrived with security. She pulled out a sheet of paper and started reading. She was interrupted by a voice from the back of the room asking her to speak up.

She started reading again, but was interrupted by a cacophony of sirens outside, said a staffer. Eventually the message was conveyed: Changes were being made at the bureau, and by noon anyone affected would receive a calendar invite to a meeting with HR.

Employees erupted. One, standing behind a frosted-glass window, told Harris to "go f*** yourself," according to a staffer. "Hope you had a good time in Davos," yelled another, referring to a trip she had taken with Tucker just weeks earlier to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

About ten minutes later, the emails started coming. Employees sobbed. Someone stopped by a liquor store on the first floor to buy whiskey so departing colleagues could have a shot as they left. Beckett stopped by with bottles of scotch.

Not all of the layoff emails arrived by noon, causing some axed employees to falsely believe they'd been spared. "They blew their own deadline," one staffer said. 

One human-resources staffer was widely quoted as saying that the paper's leaders didn't owe anyone an explanation for their layoff decisions.

"It was such a f***ing sh**show," said a staffer, who described the scene as being "like a bunch of funerals all at once."

In all, at least 30 staffers — 17 reporters and 13 editors — were axed from the bureau on "Bloody Thursday," according to a report from the union. The cuts included at least one pregnant employee and her husband. 

The Journal spokesperson downplayed the D.C. layoffs, noting that while jobs were cut from the bureau of almost 90 people, some new jobs were added, resulting in a "net reduction of 16 jobs."

One of the employees who was let go was responsible for writing about the Friday jobs report, a critical story for a business-focused outlet like the Journal. It was assigned to a reporter in New York. "And he had no idea how to do the jobs report," a staffer said.

"He called the reporter who was laid off, and he said, 'How do I do the jobs report?' He said, 'Don't ask me, they laid me off,'" according to a staffer.

Former employees say that Tucker held an all-hands meeting that Friday to discuss metrics and stories she valued. Some of the bylines included reporters who'd been let go. One former staffer said she dodged questions about future layoffs, why employees who were strong contributors were axed, and why they decided to cut D.C. jobs ahead of the 2024 election.

"Then she just ended the meeting," the former staffer said. "That was for me a breaking point in my opinion of her. None of those were hard questions."

Several of the laid-off staffers have since taken new jobs with other organizations, and in at least one case published a scoop for a competitor that had been reported for the Journal.

The Journal spokesperson said in an email that the structure that existed in D.C. prior to the cuts "did not support the type of work Emma – and now Damian – aspires to do."

"Our mission is to cover D.C. and all the news that comes out of it in a way that is distinct to the Journal," the spokesperson said. "We are not a general coverage newspaper."

Four months later, the remaining D.C. bureau staffers remain on edge, current and former staffers said. "Everybody I know is looking for a job," one said. "My phone rings from people, including people who had planned to retire there." 

The New Chief

The week after "Bloody Thursday," Paletta took the helm as the new D.C. bureau chief.

Paletta is a former longtime Journal reporter who had been a business and economics editor for the Washington Post since 2017. In a press release, he called the job "an incredible opportunity to drive journalism with urgency and precision." 

He told National Review that being the Journal's D.C. bureau chief is his "dream job." In emails and in the newsroom, he often talks about his desire to "dominate" Washington coverage. 

One staffer described Paletta as a "really good reporter" who "seems nice," and who is more of a "Washington creature" than Beckett. But others described him as Tucker's "yes man" and said he sends harsh emails that have left reporters in tears.

While some current and former staffers expressed concerns with Paletta's management style, Paletta praised his new employees' work so far.

"We are having kind of a great run in the bureau of big, impactful, agenda-setting stories that has the whole country talking," he said just days after publishing the story about Biden's mental acuity. "That's what I'm hearing, and that's what I'm focused on."

He said he's not trying to fill Beckett's shoes. "I'm just here to be me, and kind of lend my unique perspective and background and energy to this team," he said. "I have a lot of respect for [Beckett], and I hope that I can earn peoples' respect, too." 

When Tucker announced that Paletta was taking the helm in D.C., she said in an email to staff that the bureau's focus would be on politics, policy, defense, law, intelligence, and national security. But Paletta has been clear to his staff that he wants to dominate 2024 coverage of his own four areas of focus: Trump, abortion, immigration, and Gaza. 

He said he believes those four topics, in particular, "will motivate voters in the election. Those are the areas where I want us to be really dominant."

Some staffers questioned why economics isn't on the list, considering that the economy is a key focus of the Journal generally and is a top election issue. And, they ask, if Trump is a focus area, shouldn't Biden, the incumbent president, be one as well?

"Shouldn't we be doing accountability stories about the current president? Isn't that what the voters want to know?" said a staffer. "And why would you wipe out about half of the bureau who were producing those accountability stories?"

While Paletta has clearly emphasized those four issues, he suggested to National Review that the direction is really more informal and people are making it "more official sounding than it is." The economy is still important, he said, and he pointed at the Biden mental-acuity story as evidence that his team will continue to provide accountability coverage of the president.

While Paletta's four focus issues — and the exclusion of Biden as a focus — could be seen as evidence of bias, they were more likely established out of a desire to chase clicks, staffers said. 

"At the end of the day, the Biden administration just doesn't deliver clicks," one staffer said.

"What do those things have in common?" another staffer said of Paletta's four focus areas. "Well, they have clicks and engagement, and they get readers. And even if the purpose is not ideologically driven — and it probably isn't — if you're selecting stories that you choose to cover based upon what generates the most subscriptions, memberships, traffic, and engagement, then you could end up being biased by crowd mentality."

The Journal spokesperson called it "ludicrous" to suggest that the paper "shouldn't be focused on telling stories that connect with our readers."

"A hallmark of Emma's strategy for the newsroom is that we should be thinking first, foremost, and always about the reader," the spokesperson said. "However, that's not to say that we would ever stray from reporting on timely, important news."

Set Up for Success?

When asked how cutting journalists from the D.C. bureau could improve coverage, Paletta replied indirectly about the importance of newsroom structure. 

"I think this bureau is now set up for success in a way it never was before," he said. And, he said, he's "hiring people as we speak."

He also denied allegations from current and former staffers that the bureau has paired back institutional coverage of federal agencies. As evidence, he pointed to an investigative story last month that exposed a toxic workplace at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which led to the agency's chairman resigning.

Some staffers also pointed to Paletta's 2021 book, Nightmare Scenario, which he published with a Post colleague, as disqualifying for the bureau-chief job.

The nearly 500-page book aimed to provide the first complete narrative of the Trump administration's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Paletta and his co-author didn't pull their punches, and he said he's "really proud" of it. But some of his new employees  say the book crosses the line into anti-Trump commentary more appropriate for MSNBC talking heads.

The book calls Trump a "president uniquely ill-suited to lead" during a public-health crisis. It says Trump used the coronavirus "as a wedge to further divide an already deeply fractured nation," and he "created an environment that preyed on a population with diminished trust." 

The book says that much has been written about "Trump's temperament, paranoia, nonexistent attention span, disaffection, susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and disregard for facts," and then declares: "It was all true."

Those kinds of character judgments "may be perfectly fine for a book, but they may not be perfectly fine for someone who wants to be bureau chief of one of the major American newspapers," a Journal staffer said. "If you read a few of these paragraphs to Donald Trump, why would he ever talk to the Wall Street Journal again?"

The Journal spokesperson said the book's conclusions "are not opinions," and that Paletta "has been holding Democrats and Republicans accountable for more than 20 years."

Paletta said "each sentence in the book is wrapped in pages of context." He said his reporters "want to interview everyone, and we let our reputation speak for itself."

When asked if, as bureau chief, he would again describe Trump as "uniquely ill-suited to lead," Paletta said he had no comment. "I think our approach to covering both candidates is smart and focused on accountability, and I think you can tell by our coverage that that's our approach every day," he said.

Several reporters told National Review that they didn't see evidence of Tucker injecting left-wing bias into the Journal's news coverage. But a couple of staffers said they have seen evidence of editors killing stories that could be damaging to the president.

While the Journal's editorial page has long been conservative, the reporting side has always aimed for "fairness and both sides," one staffer said.

"I felt like that started to change," the staffer added. "I felt like the stories that were being pushed were very much ones that made Democrats look good."

'Dispirited, Disgruntled, Distracted'

Nearly a year-and-a-half into Tucker's tenure, Journal staffers say they still don't understand her moves.

Is cutting veteran journalists with resumes full of high-profile awards simply part of a cost-cutting strategy aimed at reducing the ranks of higher earners? Are the Journal's leaders responding to pressure from activist investors? Are they prepping for a sale?

"Please don't tell me it's not about money when it's clearly about money," a former staffer said.

Just days after the most recent layoffs, the Journal launched a new ad campaign aimed at attracting younger and more diverse audiences.

Whatever the reasons, current and former staffers say the moves have pushed employees into the union's arms. Dow Jones and the IAPE have been negotiating for a new collective-bargaining agreement since last June, and still seem to be far apart on issues including pay increases, back pay, health care, and job protections involving the expansion of artificial intelligence.

"I think the contract negotiations would have bumbled along, as they usually do with union stuff, if it weren't for [Tucker's] draconian approach to layoffs," one former staffer said, adding that, "if it weren't for Emma Tucker's arrival, there would not be the chance of a strike."

Current and former staffers said they're especially frustrated by the drawn-out nature of the job cuts. "If you wanted to crush employee morale, if you wanted a dispirited, disgruntled, distracted workforce . . . then this is exactly what you would do," one staffer said.

But the paper's spokesperson said it's "just not realistic" to suggest that all the cuts could have happened at one time because it "would be too disruptive to the business and to our readers." The spokesperson declined to say if more newsroom cuts are on the horizon.

"This is a business and Emma is doing what is best for the business," the spokesperson said.

Not everyone who spoke to National Review believes the worst is inevitable. The company is still highly profitable. Subscriptions and ad sales are up. 

"It's a big newsroom. There's still plenty of really good people working there, and there's still plenty of good work being done," one staffer said.

One staffer praised Tucker's regime for putting more thought into how stories are packaged. She's not a "cartoon villain," said another, who added that face-to-face Tucker seems to be a "good listener." Others said that in person, she could be "charming." 

"I don't know how much of that is we're Americans who love a British accent," one added.

Another gave Tucker "begrudgingly good marks" for her advocacy for Gershkovich, the Journal reporter detained in Russia. "But at the same time, why wouldn't you do that? It costs her nothing," the staffer said.

"Maybe she'll learn," said another. "I don't want to say she's going to be a disaster forever."

Still, through the recent layoffs, the Journal has lost centuries of journalistic experience and institutional knowledge. The impact is already being felt, critics say. 

For the first time since 2018, the Journal was not a Pulitzer Prize winner or finalist this year.

"People can't be ambitious," a former staffer said, "when they're in a defensive crouch."

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'A Slow-Rolling Nightmare': Inside the Revolt at the Wall Street Journal

Newsroom veterans believe the Journal's new leaders are at risk of losing the broad, bipartisan trust the ... READ MORE


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