We will know for sure when it launches on Jan. 2, but the revamped, skinnier Wall Street Journal will be the first major American paper to push significant portions of traditional newspaper functions onto the Web. Or so goes the rhetoric at this conceptual stage. Journal executives promise to direct more breaking and this-happened-yesterday news to its well-trafficked Web site, leaving the paper itself to focus more on what the news means.
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. The Journal's redesign will squeeze its pages, which will sport five columns of text instead of its current six, and net the company $18 million in newsprint-related savings. Last year the segment at Dow Jones & Co., of which the Journal is by far the largest entity, lost money. It's expected to be profitable this year, but publisher Gordon Crovitz admits the Journal's profit margin "is not what it should be." Staffers, naturally, brace for job cuts, a topic Crovitz won't address.
And hence the changes. In the U.S., there is the five-column, skinny broadsheet, like the Chicago Tribune and USA Today, and there is the denser and wider six-column format of The New York Times and WSJ. This extra width makes the Journal's print edition that much more satisfying for gray-haired legacy-media types like, oh, myself. It also makes it a pain to print and distribute in certain areas. No printing plant in Hawaii, for instance, can handle the Journal's current dimensions, which means the Journal must fly in its copies every day, which must cost an amount that I am glad I don't have to justify to my corporate overlords. Six columns also means a nonstandard ad size. There were times when the Journal could bear these costs of inconvenience, but there was also a time when boxers didn't use gloves. (The Times has plans to shrink its page size as well.)
Not the Same Animal
All that said, the Journal plays a different game than any other American newspaper. It's the only one that can charge $99 for a year's worth of its Web site. It has long covered a space in which the shelf life of a scoop is measured in minutes, so it has pushed more breaking news to its Web site for much longer than other dailies. This gets into why—if I may get simultaneously retrospective and futuristic—it now seems inevitable that whatever will happen to news will happen to business news first. In business, information is literally currency. If your job touches on investing in any way, not reading the Journal can cost you enormously, in the same way that getting certain data first can make you rich. This made the investment class among the earliest adopters of ultradigitized and BlackBerried media habits. Thus the Journal's new approach follows its readers even as it leads U.S. newspapers. It is commendable that the Journal is shoving summation-news out of its newspaper pages, but perhaps the more piquant question is: What took them so long? (The answers may have to do with journalistic habit and institutional sclerosis—which, of course, are hardly exclusive to the Journal.)
The business of business news hasn't been a happy one of late. (Major exception: CNBC, which is having a banner year.) But new entrants, like upcoming magazine Condé Nast Portfolio, pile in for one crucial reason: Men's attention to old-school media may well be waning, but business remains one of the best ways to reach affluent males. Thus, the moves to protect and squeeze more out of existing franchises. On the day the Journal unveiled its redesign, CNBC announced a beefed-up Web site, including a premium pay area. "We know we are getting new competition next year," NBC Universal Television Group CEO Jeff Zucker told an investor conference that day. He means, of course, the still-unannounced Fox business channel, for which some expect a more aggressive talent search to begin early next year. The business of business news may not be great, but it will be one of the most interesting media arenas in '07.