R.I.P. W.S.J.

May 23, 2008 – 8:41 am

Let us pause for a moment of silence in memory of the institution that WAS the Wall Street Journal. As a long-time subscriber to the paper, I’ve noticed it’s devolution since Rupert Murdoch took over. Here’s a clue from the paper itself:

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch named Wall Street Journal Publisher Robert Thomson as the paper’s new managing editor, succeeding Marcus Brauchli, who left under pressure last month….The move is expected to speed the pace of change at the nation’s second-largest newspaper, creating a more direct pipeline from News Corp. to the paper’s editors….

For the first few months under the new ownership, Mr. Brauchli ran the operations of the paper. Mr. Thomson remained in the background….

Mr. Brauchli presided over a number of changes — more general news, a more urgent and splashy front page, shorter stories — but Mr. Murdoch decided that change wasn’t happening as quickly as he would like…..

Indeed. Now the news page is littered with “general interest” stories: daily updates on the Myanmar Junta refusing aid for cyclone survivors, multiple articles per day about the recent Chinese earthquake. We get it, the Burmese Generals don’t want aid and an earthquake killed lots of Chinese.

I don’t mean to make light of those stories. But the fact is, if I wanted daily updates on those topics, then I’d read the New York Times.

And that’s the point: Murdoch wants to move the Journal away from its roots covering all-things business so that it can compete with the Times more effectively in general interest news.

There are fewer and shorter articles about abstruse topics like the credit crunch. If you were a reader of the paper last year, you may remember 3-4 pages per day with a dozen in-depth articles covering the credit crunch. The Journal was an invaluable resource to understand what was going on.

Moreover, I simply don’t understand the business case for turning the Journal into a general interest paper. Take a look at recent statistics for daily newspaper readership:

The slide in U.S. newspaper circulation is picking up speed.

Daily circulation fell 3.57% from the same period last year for 530 U.S. newspapers…according to data released Monday by the Audit Bureau of Circulation.

Bucking the trend….The Wall Street Journal, the second-largest daily (after USA Today), which said daily circulation inched up 0.35% to 2,069,463.

Three points:

  1. At 2.1 million, the WSJ’s daily circ is nearly double that of the NYT’s 1.1 million. They must be doing something right.
  2. The NYT’s daily circ fell 4% from a year ago, while the Journal was up slightly. This despite the law of large numbers, which would suggest that a larger paper would find it MORE difficult to grow.
  3. The WSJ is still the only major newspaper able to charge a subscription fee for access to its website.

At a time when the economy is getting hammered on multiple sides, when there is a distinct need for in-depth reporting on all matters business and economic, it seems clear that a paper like the WSJ would do well.

And it has. See points 1, 2 & 3 above.

Maybe it’s missed Murdoch’s brilliant newspaper brain, but a big reason that “general interest” papers are on the decline is the commoditization of their product. General interest news is freely available through wire services like AP, Reuters and AFP. Why pay for it in a newspaper when I can get it free online with Google News or Yahoo?

Not so with the business news being published by the Journal. You won’t find Carrick Mollenkamp’s incisive and detailed reporting of busted structured finance vehicles anywhere else. No reporter can match Greg Ip for his detailed knowledge and thorough coverage of the Federal Reserve. The whole newsroom is chock full of such distinctive experts.

Why waste space that could be devoted to these folks’ detailed, totally original reporting with another article about Myanmar? Do I care that Ban Ki-Moon convinced the Junta to accept aid delivered by the U.N.? I don’t. But if I did, I can get that article:

  1. anywhere.
  2. for free
  3. and, with the web, faster than I could get it from a paper. Sure the WSJ website can get me general interest stories quickly, but why pay for commodity news? See again points 1 & 2.

I can’t get Mollenkamp, Ip or any of these genius financial reporters anywhere else. Them I pay for. In print AND online.

Here’s what I fear will happen to the Journal: Murdoch succeeds in turning the paper into a bastard cousin of the NYT. Circulation falls precipitously because no one’s interested in paying for general interest news, which the NYT will always cover far better anyway. With falling circ, the WSJ is forced to retrench like all other U.S. papers. Reporters get fired, pages are cut, original content is replaced with wire feeds. This leads to a less appealing paper and further declines in circulation, which in turn leads to more cuts in coverage.

Please Mr. Murdoch: Don’t fix it; it ain’t broke.

  1. 4 Responses to “R.I.P. W.S.J.”

  2. Totally agree, just look at the ratio of business news to “foxy CNBC” type fluff that shows up on the front page these days. WSJ will slowly morph into USA today. I am looking forward to gee whiz charts and heavy change in the S:N ratio for the worse. (S:N signal:noise)

    By ngogerty on May 23, 2008

  3. The last time I saw the journal there was a three-page article on which high heels made the best power-heels for women in the office. Based on height, comfort, and color. It was perplexing. However, I can say with all certainty I did want to know which were the best power heels. So basically I’m a big girly girl

    By Rachel on May 23, 2008

  4. Rupert isn’t a stupid guy, so he’s probably thinking he’ll keep the traditional journal readers cause they have nowehre else to go while expanding the general interest readership. But you’re right and he’s wrong. When I open the paper I want to see stuff I can’t get elsewhere. I still read it, but for how long?

    By John on May 23, 2008

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