Steiger ushers in new Journal

Paul Steiger, The Wall Street Journal's managing editor, talks to Julia Hood about the thinking behind the upcoming redesign, which will launch January 2

Paul Steiger, The Wall Street Journal's managing editor, talks to Julia Hood about the thinking behind the upcoming redesign, which will launch January 2

Julia Hood: What prompted the redesign now?

Paul Steiger: There are two things that came together. One, we wanted to shrink the width of the paper. Second, [we sought] to adapt to rapidly changing reader needs. One is reader convenience - as airline seats become more narrow, if you're sitting in the middle seat like this [spreading arms wide], you're in trouble.

If you're limited to your own printing plants - we have 17 in the US - your ability to adapt to reader needs is constrained. With this [new] width that is becoming the standard, it means we can contract print...[in regions where] it just doesn't pay - in the modern era - to build a whole new printing plant. But if you can pay somebody else to print, the advantages to readers and to us are enormous.

The final thing is that a skinnier paper saves trees and saves us money. For a full-page ad, you can charge essentially the same amount even though it has smaller actual inches of newsprint. It [still] has the same dominant position in the paper. The result: we actually save significant dollars in the cost of wood pulp - $18 million.

Those three things together argued for a major retooling. When you've got 17 printing plants, you have to change all those presses and the paper's going to be skinner so it had to be redesigned.

At the same time, the whole dynamic of the way news organizations serve their readers and their advertisers is changing at a very high rate of speed. What we were asking ourselves - and, really, this was led by our publisher, Gordon Crovitz - is how do you design news coverage and a print paper for an environment where more and more readers now get a good hunk of their news online, and is that trend going to continue?

I spent my whole career at two news organizations. I started at the Journal, had 15 years at the Los Angeles Times, [and] then went back to the Journal. When I was at the LA Times, the circulation was at 1.2 million; circulation now is in the high 700,000 - that's the paid circulation of our online edition. And the online edition is just going to keep on growing. The question that we were asking ourselves is if you are going to adapt the print, how do you adapt it in such a way that you make it complementary to the online edition? How do you design what you're doing online to make it complementary to print, and how do you get readers to take both?

Obviously some will one want, some will want the other, but it's best for us if we can make both models useful. So much of what we've done here is to try to adapt to the notion that readers are going to be taking a big hunk of their news online.

THE CONTENT

Steiger: We concluded several things. One, announcement news was going to be available to our readers through our online channel and lots of others. That doesn't mean we can ignore announcement news in print. Just because you can be online doesn't mean you are. You might have to go to the kid's soccer game or maybe you were in meetings all day.

We need to protect our readers' announcement news, but that should take up less space in the paper. More space should be devoted to what print does best - long-form, narrative stories that convey information that's important to business readers.

[You should also] take advantage of the serendipity effect of print, which is that you can scan pages or partial pages and pick up headlines and see things that you didn't know you were interested in. That is much more difficult online.

Finally, [we will] use navigation in print to guide readers to what we think they'll find of most interest.

So the way we've adapted the print paper is to make it more user-friendly, have greater recognition that many if not all of our readers will know what yesterday's announcement news was, to devote more of our space to added value.

We're further shrinking the amount of space devoted to lists of quotations. Instead, we are guiding people to a new and improved online market stats package that will be best-of-breed.

We are squeezing the size of announcement news and devoting more of the space to stuff that may spring from news that everybody knows but where we've added value. And also devoted more space to stuff that's entirely our own.

Hood: What sort of market research did you do prior to the changes?

Steiger: We had some ideas of our own. And then we did tons of focus groups and also some quantitative research. And we found that some of our more radical ideas were not what readers were interested in, so we junked those early on. But we found great enthusiasm, not unanimous enthusiasm, but great enthusiasm for what we are doing.

Hood: Did you ever contemplate going tabloid, like the Asian and European editions?

Steiger: Not seriously.

Hood: What is the significance of that format in this market, versus those?

Steiger: It's simple convenience. In Europe and Asia, the size of the paper is very convenient in tabloid form. In the US, we can be between 60-70 pages broadsheet, that's 100-120 tabloid - it's just unwieldy. Not that the New York tabloids aren't near that size on some days, but sectioning has much less convenience value in a tabloid because you have to kind of pull things out and page through them. Whereas, you [can] get very quickly to [our sections]. It's a roadmap to the paper. One of the things readers told us loud and clear was that they like our format and our section structure.

Hood: Did the redesign that you did in 2002 not go far enough? Many of the themes seem to be the same - such as navigation?

Steiger: You can't do everything at once. Remember, when we made those changes, our readers had been used to black and white, tombstone vertical layout on page one. What we gave them was an additional section three days a week, plus color on all of the section fronts, and I just didn't want to produce too many coronaries out there. It worked; readers liked it. But [in the] meantime, time is moving very, very fast in the news space, and the acceleration of the use of the web, including our own Web site, for readers to stay in touch with news, meant that it was time to go into the well again.

But I would say that the triggering event was the decision to shrink the Web width. Once you're going to do that, you say, "Ok, what kind of paper is it that we want?" My analogy, forgive me, I overuse sports analogies, but when you throw a long pass you don't throw it to where the receiver is at the time you throw it, you throw it to where the receiver is going to be. We [asked], "Where our reader is going to be in 2007?" And where they are going to be is heavily using the Web, wanting print [to be] what print is good for.

Hood: Is there a big divergence between your online and print readership now?

Steiger: It's not a homogeneous mix. There are differences, but not as many as you'd think. The online readership is a bit younger, but not an enormous amount younger. They are a bit more focused on tech, but not overwhelmingly. I would say there are more similarities than differences.

Hood: You recently announced the launch of the fashion-business bureau. Are you looking at other areas of development?

Steiger: The fashion bureau is an important step in the advance of our business-of-life coverage, which has been an enormous success for us.

For example, last night I was talking to a banker who says that he's an avid daily reader of ours. He glances at the news and finds stuff in the A section that he likes to read. But there are two things that make him not miss the paper: the editorial page, which is unique, and our business-of-life coverage.

But there are some readers who might be tempted to settle for second best if it's easier or cheaper, except that there are some things that are unique in the paper that make a habit for them every day.

There are other things in the paper that serve that function - that are not new. The "What's News" column is still read by 98% of our readers, and in the new design, it's going to be just as big; in fact, [it will be] a higher-proportion of the front page because we kept it effectively the same size on a skinner page.

It isn't just the new stuff that's taken as unique, but that business-of-life coverage has been a tremendous hit with our readers, it's got us more women readers, more younger readers, but it's also been embraced by our boomer readers as well.

It helps pay the bills, too. Along with building circulation, it's gotten us access to consumer advertising, which we never had before.

People in the ad community do not always focus on the fact that Monday through Saturday we have more women readers than The New York Times. They've always acknowledged that, yes, more of our readers spend more money on consumer products than any other collection of readers anywhere, but the notion was right audience, wrong environment.

Now there's an environment that works, and, so, consumer advertisers that would not pay attention to us in the past now are in the paper. Some of them have been brought in for Saturday, but others are advertising Monday through Friday.

Hood: Are there other ways you like to see the demographic mix shift or evolve?

Steiger: Sure, but I'm also realistic. I'd like to have it be younger, and I'd like to have more women, but younger is tough because of the population of the United States. The baby boom "pig in the snake" - it's a huge hunk of the population. Also, classically, our readership has been [that] people would glom onto the Journal in their 30s and then embrace it as they moved up in their careers and had more money to invest and so on. Well, the median age of those folks is going up because you have all these boomers, and then there's a dip in the population, that's going to pull you through.

So even if you stay where you are, you're going to get older. It is a challenge, but I think that a more convenient size, a strong, vibrant growing website that is complementary to a paper that is sensitive to what readers want to have, will help us with younger readers. Will it knock three years off the median age? Hell, no. It won't do that, certainly not in a year or two.
 

REPORTER REACTION

Hood: The redesign is happening during a time of incredible change, as you alluded to. How do you keep journalists engaged when the medium is changing [and reporters are moving to online publications]?

Steiger: Back in the late 1990s, we started the relationship with CNBC. There was a real culture shock. We had a lot of reporters say, "No way am I going to let my story loose to TV" or "I'm keeping my scoops for the morning." That's over. That is so over.

Readers understand, reporters and editors understand, that more of their impact is being felt in the 24/7 space. They have a vibrant, growing, profitable Web site to write for. And they've embraced it.

The challenge is not so much keeping them interested and providing new opportunities, it's adapting the coverage and business model[s] so that we remain a vibrant business enterprise and hopefully become more vibrant.

The way you do that is by penetrating deeper into the Web. The acquisition of MarketWatch was a big help in doing that, along with organic growth internally. And then making the best use of our print position, which is why when everybody was trying to shy away from print, we made this huge investment to go into Saturday.

I think this is a great place for reporters now. We still provide the best [daily] platform for long-form journalism, even as we're offering all kinds of additional opportunities - on TV, on video, online, blogging. All of that stuff is proliferating here all the time. Today, I had three proposals from reporters for new blogs or verticals.

Hood: What is your attitude towards those proposals?

Steiger: It's great. You know, you've got to look at which ones the readers really want and which ones can the ad side sell - there are all those elements -  the same kind of judgment you have to make when you start a new print feature. But we're in an environment when people are saying "I'd love to do this, I'd love to do that". Do we get raided occasionally? Yeah, because this is a place that has traditionally generated some of the best journalism in the world. But we've done a pretty good job holding onto the people we most want to hold on to.

Hood: How good a job is the media doing in covering the change in media? When circulation figures come out reflecting declines in circulation figures for publications like the Journal and the Times, are the media doing an adequate job explaining what is going on?

Steiger: Certainly there's a lot of reporter time and news hole devoted to covering this stuff. You know, how intelligently are we doing it? In some cases, [we are doing it] very intelligently. I think my own paper has done a terrific job in covering the Tribune situation. In other cases, you know, we may focus on the wrong things.

Circulation is very complicated to write about because so much of advertising right now is sold based on readership, not on circulation, and so what does circulation really mean? That's a hard concept to get at, and there is certainly virtue in sticking with the traditional numbers, because at least you've got apples to apples. Maybe everybody can do a better job reminding folks that when it comes to putting money in the cash register, it's increasingly readership and not circulation that matters. But, for us, it's not just readership and circulation; it's also the quality of the audience. There I think we're the best in the business.

Hood: Our audience is the PR community. What would you say that companies should keep in mind as they think about the Journal as one of the stakeholders it has in terms of communicating news? Is there a change in approach for reaching and being relevant to the Journal?

Steiger: I think that it's not a sort of "On December 31 it's this way, and on January 2 it's this way"; it's a sort of trend. But basically the trend is this - if I'm a PR person, I'm going to think about the Journal as having multiple faces. For my announcement news, it's going to be covered at even greater length than I'm used to in the Web, frequently, because space is infinite on the Web.

But in the paper, I'm going to have to get used to seeing stories squeezed, unless there is added value. What's the added value? It's an angle that other people don't have, or maybe it's an exclusive; we get it a day ahead. Maybe if you're looking for major coverage in the Journal, you guide us to a trend story that you are a part of, if you can't give us an exclusive on the announcement, rather than putting all your eggs in the announcement basket.

Hood: In this redesign, are you looking ahead to the next five years? Where does this take you in terms of where you see the publication in five years?

Steiger: I think we're now in the environment of continuous change - that if we see an opportunity to gain from change we'll go for it. There's nothing that says I've done this big thing, don't talk to me. Maybe you get one day to enjoy the victory in that game, then it's time to get ready for the next one. You see this particularly on the web. The website changes constantly. The kind of change that I'm talking about in terms of the coverage doesn't happen overnight either. Some reporters will get it faster than others, and some industries may lend themselves to the change in emphasis more quickly than others. So you've got change taking place within this framework, but how soon will we change the framework again? As soon as we get a good idea.

Hood: Will the Journal potentially be covering more about the public relations industry in future?

Steiger: Yes. PR and management consulting are two areas I wish we covered better than we do. One of the reasons we don't cover them better is there aren't a bunch of publicly held companies that are sort-of pure plays in either domain, so it's not as easy to keep track of. And also the results of good PR and the results of management consulting are often, not always, more qualitative than quantitative, so they're harder to measure. What is really good PR advice? You can see it in some cases, but in most cases it's not immediately clear, and the same is true in management consulting. That said, it's not impossible, and it's an area where I'd like to put some more resources in that, in both those areas.

Paul Steiger

1991-present
Managing Editor, The Wall Street Journal, VP, Dow Jones & Company

1983-1991
Titles included assistant managing editor and deputy managing editor, WSJ

1968-1983
Titles included staff writer, economics correspondent, business editor, LA Times

1966-1968
Reporter, San Francisco bureau, WSJ

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