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Another Small Pleasure

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When Rupert Murdoch said The Wall Street Journal would target The New York Times in the competition for readers, he was talking about a lot more than prose style. But if you're taking aim at The Times it helps to show that WSJ reporters know how to write, really write.

Long before Murdoch took over The Journal, it had an enviable tradition of reporting and editing factual news in a "storytelling" format. This was not unique to The Journal -- "storytelling" has been a tiresome buzzword for years in the news business -- but WSJ reporters have been trained to do it better than most.

As a follow-up to yesterday's admittedly inexact NYT-WSJ comparison, here's a textbook example of two front-page ledes that offer a precise contrast in news writing. One is a grabber. It presents the facts in human terms, with dramatic appeal. The other is a dull recitation. It presents the facts as legal abstractions, with no appeal at all.

Exhibit A:

In the final act to a legal drama that began with the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill 19 years ago, a splintered Supreme Court sliced $2 billion from punitive damages imposed on Exxon Mobil Corp., leaving fishermen, native Alaskans and local landowners with just 20% of the award approved by a federal appeals court.

The decision left Exxon pleased and the Alaskans frustrated, but its impact may reach well beyond the icy shores of Prince William Sound. Due to the unique area of law the lawsuit invoked, the justices had their first opportunity to reveal their approach to punitive damages when drawing on a blank slate, rather than applying state laws as they have in prior cases.

Exhibit B:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday reduced what had once been a $5 billion punitive damages award against Exxon Mobil to about $500 million. The ruling essentially concluded a legal saga that started when the Exxon Valdez, a supertanker, struck a reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989.

The decision may have broad implications for limits on punitive damages generally. Punitive damages, which are meant to punish and deter, are imposed on top of compensatory damages, which aim to make plaintiffs whole.

Exhibit A: is from today's Journal. Exhibit B: is from today's Times.

I should also mention that the entire stories bear out the contrast in spades.