'Journal' rewrites its traditional image

The Wall Street Journal wants to be your friend. Very much so. It's becoming a little creepy, in fact.

The Wall Street Journal wants to be your friend. Very much so. It's becoming a little creepy, in fact.

The paper is like your boss at work - smart, well-connected, highly respected, passing judgment from afar - who suddenly asks you to hang out on the weekend.

"Gee, I'd love to," you say, thinking of your Sunday New York Times and the Super Bowl pregame festivities. "But, uh, I already have plans."

Last week, the Journal announced a bevy of planned changes, including new "Index to People" and "Who's News" sections, which will tout the names of daily newsmakers in a rather unseemly box. And come next year, it will forgo its wide, muscular, "move over world, capitalism coming through" format in favor of a more standard width to save newsprint costs, and perhaps to encourage more readership among the unwashed masses on crowded subway cars.

The new people-centric format could prove to be a bonanza for PR firms whose clients are clip-happy. Not only can an executive be featured in a normal news article, but now he can also get his name listed on the Index page, and even vie for a spot in the daily feature highlighting "business leaders...taking on a new challenge."

But the spotlight has a dark side. The easily accessible index will make negative news buried on the inside pages more accessible to everyone who recognizes the name of those involved. More importantly, a shift in the Journal's existing focus on companies themselves to more personality-driven coverage has the real potential of detracting from the paper's well-earned gravitas.

Combine this with their new and insipid feature-heavy Saturday edition, and the Journal is risking some of its credibility by diluting its sharp business concentration in search of new ads and eyeballs. Easy navigation is great, but it's a slippery slope down to becoming a Wall Street version of Page Six.

The foray into weekend publishing has thus far pulled down Dow Jones' annual profit margin by five cents per share (with more losses expected) and has inspired widespread snickering at the clunky attempts of the business bible to figure out what the world does outside of the office.

Indeed, the WSJ Saturday edition is reminiscent of a beached whale: so graceful in its natural environment, but simply depressing when it attempts to take an evolutionary leap for which it is not equipped. One can only imagine the glee of the predatory freelancers and weary young staffers who convince their editors to sign off on (actual) weekend articles like "Our Regular Guy Goes Shopping" and "The Search for Fresh Beer."

"The Saturday demographic is young, dynamic, and pleasure-seeking," the young reporter promises his befuddled boss, whose journalistic competence is nil when stocks are not involved. "Just give me the corporate credit card, and I'll have 1,500 words on 'The Best Champagne Rooms at New York Strip Clubs' that will have all of Generation X saying, 'Whoop, there it is.'"

It would seem that the WSJ would be happy to stay in its own niche, which is as wide as American business itself. The paper's audience demographics are ridiculously enviable - the average household net worth of subscribers is a whopping $2.1 million - and the online version, WSJ.com, has attracted three quarters of a million paid subscriptions at a time when most papers are still figuring out if they can ever turn a profit on the Internet.

Content-wise, the Journal sucks up business scoops like a Dyson vacuum, while producing some of America's best feature journalism with its offbeat front-page stories.

Executives want the WSJ to reach for more of everything; the problem is that the paper has already completely saturated its natural demographic. In the long run, it's better to keep a level of musty respect, than to become too slick for your own good.

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