Why the New 'Wall Street Journal' Works

And Where It Doesn't Quite Make the Grade

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- "All the news that's fi to print." "Now, the complete skinny." "We reduce. You deride." "The Small Street Journal."

The complete skinny.
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Those were Slate readers' slogan suggestions for the new-look Wall Street Journal; you can find them at the end of Jack Shafer's piece on the topic. Referring to the Journal's 3-inch downsizing, Shafer opens by noting that, "It's the rare amputee who describes himself as better off without his two big toes than with them." He goes on to decide that the Journal's redesign is part of a greater Dow Jones "retreat." In other words, in Shafer's view, the redesign is about cost cutting.

He admits he bases his conclusion on the reporting of The New York Times' Katherine Q. Seelye, who concludes that the changes "are primarily driven by economics," most notably, of course, the $18 million of savings in newsprint and distribution costs.

This was a consistent theme in the coverage of the redesign. Even Jon Fine, the former Ad Ager now smithing his words at BusinessWeek, seems to want his readers to feel that all the Journal's talk of delivering on readers' expectations has to be set against the backdrop of the cash-flow imperative. "This is a much nicer framework for the Journal's management to erect around the move than if they were merely to admit they're chasing cost savings," he says in his Dec. 18 posting.

Jonathan Berr at Blogging Stocks agreed, and went further in saying that the Journal had made the changes several years too late.

"Overdue" is also the conclusion of Keith Ferrell at the TechWeb blog, although he adds to his charges against the paper that it was also poorly timed, a reference to its rollout yesterday on a day when Wall Street remained closed to mark the death of former President Gerald Ford. The Times' Kit Seelye noted that little clanger too.

But let's give the Journal some credit here. Sure, cost saving is part of the redesign equation -- from what I heard at the press conference, the management team really wasn't denying that -- but that doesn't mean Dow Jones wasn't aiming for a better end product, too. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive -- if they were, then we might as well sound the death knell for all papers -- and the Journal has proved it.

As an editor who wrestles daily with the wholesale shift that's taken place in readers' business-news consumption habits, I think the redesign ticks just about every box you'd expect it to tick. In giving over 80% of the paper to analyzing what the news means, the Journal has accepted that news is a 24/7 online commodity and that the only way for a print publication to retain value in that environment is the kind of analysis that leaves readers feeling smarter. This might be obvious to those who live their lives in the blogosphere, but it still takes a brave newspaper publisher to tackle the shift head on -- we can all name a couple of obvious examples of papers that are still a long way from accepting that reality.

If I was going to nitpick, there are a couple of things that didn't quite work on day one: The "What's News" column seems strangely elongated on the skinnier front page and has too many items -- I'm one of those attention-deficient people who'd rather the editors told me which five stories really mattered than left me to scan through 30 items. And the Journal staff will also need to get more comfortable with those at-a-glance boxes, as a few of them read like no one knew what to put in them. Also "The Journal Exchange" -- the home of its "Letters to the Editor" -- perhaps deserves more prominent location than the back of the Marketplace section. Debbie Schlussel posits this one on her blog. In fact I'd like to see more reader comment throughout the pages.

Yet, overall, it's a more comfortable, better-illustrated read, with jumps that are easier to follow. It's a read that accepts that not all of us have two hours to thumb through the pages. And, most importantly for advertisers, it's still the Journal, which translates roughly as "a-must-read-for-anyone-in-business," delivering a couple of million walking wallets every day. Surely that fact, along with this smart redesign, will make the Journal a properly profitable business in '07. If it doesn't, then I don't hold out much hope for any of us in the business of business news.
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