You’ve been dating the same person for years. She’s not flashy, but she is steady and, to your mind, glorious. And then you begin to notice changes. A slimmer profile, a suddenly increased concern with appearances. You keep your suspicions to yourself, but it soon becomes obvious that everything is changing. And you finally just blurt it out. “Are you covering politics now?”
The Wall Street Journal, which has historically had a thing for guys in pinstripes rendered in stippled drawings, is taking its makeover very seriously. During a week when the stock market fell more than 4%, a recession seemed more likely, and Microsoft was putting the moves on Yahoo, the Journal spent almost all of its front-page real estate above the fold on politics, replete with flashy graphics. Out with Ballmer and Bernanke; in with Obama, Clinton and McCain.
Personal touch: Chairman and CEO of News Corp. Rupert Murdoch.
When Rupert Murdoch closed his deal for The Wall Street Journal at the end of 2007, there was speculation that the paper’s news columns would take on an ideological tilt. Nothing of that sort has occurred, which raises the question of what he is going to do with the paper. And the answer after a week of wall-to-wall politics on the front page? You’re looking at it.
Four years ago, John Kerry effectively captured the Democratic nomination and made a brief appearance on Page 1, but then it was back to the business of business. In January 2008, there were 23 Page 1 stories about politics, up from 14 in 2004, but even those numbers do not fully reflect all the pages and talent that has been poured into political stories throughout the paper. (Mint has an exclusive content relationship with the Journal in India.)
Marcus W. Brauchli, the Journal’s managing editor, said by telephone that the push is being driven both by the immediate appeal of a running story and a mandate to compete aggressively in general-interest news. “It’s true we have had fairly intensive coverage of the elections, in part because it is a dramatic year politically. When there is news, you run with it,” he said.
Beyond that, “Mr Murdoch has said publicly that we will compete against The New York Times, the Financial Times and other general-interest newspapers. In the news department here, we believe there is no reason that people should have to go to another news source beyond the Journal to find news of consequence to them in any sphere—politics, economics, even culture and the arts.”
There have been other changes. The leadership has indicated that it will move deadlines, if not heaven and earth, to cover sports eventually, including scores, and begin publishing a high-end magazine aimed at wealthy consumers, headed by an editor imported from Britain.
The editors of the newspaper fired off a memo saying both they and the readers are interested in articles that are shorter with more direct leads, even though Journal reporters have been known for long anecdotal openings that can put readers right inside the boardroom. A blog called Knife Tricks (Knifetricks.blogspot.com) noted an increasing propensity towards articles about models, but we are probably still a long way from stippled versions of the Page 3 girls of the British tabloids.
“There is no question that a cultural revolution, an absolute shift, is under way,” said a reporter, who spoke off the record. In part because of the influence of the publisher, Robert Thomson, a long-time Murdoch news executive, he added, headlines and photos are being pumped up in an effort to make the newspaper a more appealing product on the news-stand.
Still, there is a risk. People don’t read The Wall Street Journal to find out what happened when a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, but they might be interested in an article about why it did. In trying to gain a toehold in the news stream and achieve Murdoch's intention of taking on The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal could risk its pre-eminence in business news, both with consumers and with advertisers.
“The Times is coming from the consumer side into the business space while the Journal is coming from the business realm into the consumer space,” said Sarah Fay, chief executive of Carat and Isobar US, an advertising company. “I think it’s okay for the Journal to cross that line, but they have to be careful how far they go. Everyone has to know where their sweet spot is and make sure they don’t damage their brand by going too far afield for their readers.”
It is hard to shake the feeling that there is one reader whom the newspaper’s new leadership has in mind. The more direct leads and shorter article lengths, the more this is the paper that Murdoch wants to read. The newspaper’s so-called A-hed, a whimsical feature article on all manner of subjects, has been pushed down to the bottom of the front page and seems in danger of falling off entirely. It is graphically richer, more newsstand-friendly, but short on the kind of playful narrative re-creations and step-backs that have long been the Journal’s hallmark. And there is more at stake than an approach to business journalism that made The Wall Street Journal worth $6 billion to Murdoch to begin with. Flexing some already existing muscles—the paper has always had talented political reporters—in a busy election season is one thing, but building out long-term capacity to cover all aspects of human endeavour will be expensive.
“I suspect that he is less worried about the cost of it in the short term than establishing the Journal as a broader force,” said John Morton, the longtime newspaper analyst. “His intent clearly goes beyond making money,”
People have lost millions underestimating Murdoch’s instincts. Yet when twinned with the announcement that the Journal will be moving into the Midtown Manhattan headquarters of its parent News Corp., the incremental but steady changes make clear that it is becoming more his paper with each passing day. And at least some of his news staff seem willing to go along, anecdotal leads be damned.
“We work at a newspaper where the owner is hiring and throwing money at the business, while the rest of the industry could not be grimmer,” an editor said, declining to be identified. “There are other, more inchoate fears about where this ends up. But in the short term, it’s exciting.”
©2008/The New York Times