Wall Street Journal Europe Publisher Andrew Langhoff resigned yesterday, but why?

A hard-to-comprehend story in today’s Wall Street Journal alleges that Langhoff transgressed by pressuring Wall Street Journal Europe reporters into covering an advertiser, consulting firm ELP, and by contractually promising that WSJE reporters would cover ELP in “special report” sections. (The tainted stories in question now carry a disclaimer.)

There’s a third dimension to the scandal, which the Wall Street Journal article soft-pedals. It turns out that bulk-sold, discounted copies of WSJE were sold to the same advertiser, ELP, to boost circulation. I defy any reader to cull the salient passages and find any evidence or hint of circulatory wrong-doing by the publication.

For that sort of coverage, see today’s piece in the Guardian by Nick Davies, “Wall Street Journal circulation scam claims senior Murdoch executive.” Davies exploits the circulation angle, alleging that the WSJE publisher “set up a complex scheme to channel money to ELP to pay for the papers it had agreed to buy—effectively buying the papers with the Journal‘s own cash.” The Guardian also calls Langhoff’s resignation a “damage limitation exercise” prompted by its inquiries into the scandal. The Wall Street Journal calls the resignation a result of an “internal probe” into the special-report articles and a circulation agreement with ELP.

Will the scandal go bigger or will it burn itself out in a couple of days? Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns the Wall Street Journal Europe, has already copped to the journalistic sins of having a publisher promise an advertiser coverage and of leaning on reporters to produce it. This behavior is considered very, very, unclean in the world of publishing when conducted covertly. But when the advertiser-pleasing copy is produced overtly in special sections, the worst publishers are accused of is opportunism. Today, most quality newspapers assemble special sections themed to energy, transportation, education, philanthropy, investing, health, et al. These sections, which contain soft or backgrounderish copy, are propped up by lucrative ads from the major industries doing business in the theme area. So great is the publisher’s appetite for special sections that if the New York Times could persuade Eukanuba, Purina, and Hartz Ultraguard Plus Rid Worm tablets to take out gigantic ads, it would gladly print a “Your Dog’s Retirement” section. Twice a year.