the Wall Street Journal's Page 1 editor, John Brecher, opened the New York Times on July 17 and scanned the front page to see what the competition was up to. "Audit of Medicare Finds $23 Billion in Overpayments" read the headline of an article displayed with hey-get-this prominence in the upper-right corner. The Journal that day didn't have the Medicare overpayment news -- just the sort of story the paper prides itself on landing. And, if the Times gets it first, that's precisely the kind of thing that makes life in the WSJ newsroom a tad prickly. Especially when the story turns up in the Journal's daily in-house "competition report" distributed to senior staff.
But looking at the Times' Medicare article, Brecher thought, "This sounds familiar." He called around the office and quickly discovered why: The Medicare overpayment story had been broken in his own paper so many news cycles ago -- five weeks earlier, in a story by George Anders, on June 11 -- that he'd almost forgotten it. It turned out to be the sort of story that's recorded in the scoops score card religiously kept at the Journal.
"In general, our philosophy here is different than at a lot of places, especially on the front page," says Brecher. "If we can't be unique, let's do something else. There are thousands and thousands of stories out there."
Conventional wisdom and massive marketing campaigns might portray the New York Times as the country's most important newspaper, the one that arbitrates what's news and what's not, but the reality is that the Times is a decent big-city paper in an era and a nation littered with atrocious metropolitan dailies. Compared to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or the Chicago Tribune, the Times might actually seem to merit all the Pulitzers it has prized out of the committee over the years. But to anyone interested in the business of breaking the news, the Wall Street Journal so dependably hits the newsstand first with stories that the Journal vs. Times competition is akin to a race between NASA and Belize to put a man on Mars.
Television news assignment editors might take their marching orders from the Times, but there is a more reliable measure of the genuine influence wielded by the two papers: Which one is read most often by people in power? A study of the newspaper-reading habits at government agencies, published by the Government Accounting Office on June 27, ought to make the Gray Lady blanch.
You'd expect the folks at the Securities and Exchange Commission to pay closer attention to the Journal than the Times -- SEC business is catnip for the Journal -- and, indeed, according to the GAO study of "number of procured newspaper copies" in fiscal 1996, the commission gets 66 copies of the Wall Street Journal and 31 of the Times (the Washington Post limps in with 13). It's even worse at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, where the Monday through Friday newspaper delivery includes 399 copies of the Journal, two of the Times and a solitary copy of the Washington Post. But the Journal also cleans the Times' clock at Defense (126-55), Energy (200-70), Interior (31-23) and Justice (231-192).
The Times wins a few categories -- the Smithsonian Institution, naturally enough, prefers the newspaper of record (18-10), and the Peace Corps volunteers its support (3-2) for the Times. In the Executive Office of the President, the Times (70) beats the Journal (64), but both lose to the Post (76). Even at this late date, presidential staffers must figure it's good to keep an eye on the paper that once upon a time made things so hot for their predecessors. The final totals in the GAO study (minus the State Department, which didn't respond to the survey) leave the Journal prancing in the winner's circle with 2,533 daily subscriptions at government agencies, and the Times finishing a couple of furlongs back, at 1,599, just nosing out the Post (1,582).
The GAO undertook its study as part of an inquiry into expenditures for periodical subscriptions and news clippings (the Department of Energy spent $970,000 on periodicals in fiscal 1996, only about $39,000 for newspapers). The Journal, meanwhile, does another kind of bookkeeping that perhaps shows why government workers by a wide margin prefer the Dow Jones publication: a day-by-day accounting of exclusives. It's a good way to monitor the paper's journalistic achievements, of course, but also an effective means of turning the staff into a gang of butt-kicking reporters (or, if you prefer, into a haunted troupe of terrified hacks).
When the July 17 Journal reports that Lou Dobbs, a CNN executive vice president and perhaps the best-known business expert in the country, is about to quit hosting "Moneyline," and the New York Times doesn't have the story (not even on the following day), that's the sort of scoop that, if not greeted with cheers, at least makes the knuckles a little less white down on Liberty Street. Kind of like when the Journal's pre-election coverage accurately divined the collapse of the Mexican ruling party's 70-year reign. That Page 1 story ran on June 27; the Times trickled in on the subject five days later.
But the real nitty-gritty of the Journal's scoops-monitoring is in the "What's News" column on the front page, where what the paper calls "10-point exclusives" appear. Last year, the Journal claimed 921 10-pointers. This year, at the halfway mark, the number had already reached 556 (or about four stories a day). The Journal doesn't keep a running count of stories it's been beaten on by other papers, but one-line descriptions of them appear in the daily "competition reports" circulated at morning editorial meetings -- and read like career obituaries if they happen with any frequency on a reporter's beat. Deputy Managing Editor Dan Hertzberg is known as the most rabid of the be-first-or-be-gone editors at the paper.
Does the Times have a similar devotion to breaking news, but -- with a news reporting staff significantly smaller than the Journal's -- are they unable keep up? Does the Times, for instance, have an equivalent of the Journal's system of tracking its exclusives?
"It doesn't sound like the sort of thing we would do," says director of public relations Heidi Pokorny, "but I'll ask."
And has the Times seen the GAO study, and does the paper have a comment? The question was posed on Friday morning. Ever quick off the mark, the Times said it couldn't respond until Monday. It never called back.