The Wall Street Journal redesigns itself
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, April 20, 2002)

It may have been the most discreet and judicious redesign in the history of newspapers. At The Wall Street Journal, only the promotion department became visibly excited. Last week, the day before the paper made some changes in style and content, the promotion people ran a full-page house ad with a breathless headline: "Tomorrow, We'll Break Our Biggest Story in Years." That proved to be false advertising, thank goodness. A big story would have meant radical changes in the look or editorial approach of the Journal, but when the paper finally came out, it was slightly modified, not transformed.

This was just as well: The Journal didn't build itself into the second most popular American newspaper (after USA Today) by capricious editing and unpredictable innovations. We readers like the Journal to look like the Journal, and it hasn't stopped doing that, not even a little bit. But it has lately been enduring certain financial difficulties -- not crippling, but worrying. Because it was such a spectacular success during the '90s boom, it had farther to fall than most other papers when the boom ended. The changes now underway will (the owners hope) attract more women readers, lower the average age of readers (now 50), and recover some of the advertising lost as the economy faltered.

Meanwhile, intellectual competition for the Journal has arisen on an unexpected front, the right wing. For decades, its ferocious editorials and op-ed commentaries have made it the only right-wing daily read in New York. But The New York Sun, which launched this week with the backing of a dozen investors (including Lord Black of Crossharbour), promises to emphasize a similar free-market, no-rent-controls, low-tax agenda. The Sun won't be a gigantic enterprise like the Journal, but it certainly will be competing for ideas, if not for writers.

That the Journal editors did anything at all about their paper's appearance was more remarkable than what they did. Some newspapers change often: The Globe and Mail redesigned itself in the summer of 1998, then did it all over again in the autumn of 1999. The Journal's front page hadn't changed since 1942 and many inside pages looked even older than that.

The revisions were planned for four years and cost US$225-million, most of it spent on upgrading 17 printing plants. The Journal can now run as many as 96 pages (rather than 80, the previous upper limit), two dozen of them with colour. This means more colour advertising, more editorial colour, and colour drawings to introduce many articles, particularly on section fronts. Mostly, the colour will be muted. Page one has acquired some splotches of colour that direct us to stories inside, plus pastel-shaded background blocks, in beige, blue or green, to identify, in a restrained and polite way, certain key features. All this not only maintains but heightens the essential elegance of the Journal.

One notable change involves the journalistic equivalent of reinventing the wheel. Since the 19th century, most newspapers have followed a simple rule: for a big story, use a big headline. Not the Journal. It publishes some of the most brilliant and searching (and some of the longest) articles in any newspaper, but until now it has announced them with almost perverse modesty, on just a single front-page column. We had to read the words in every headline with care to learn when something special was happening. A careless reader (we are all careless readers sometimes) might skip blithely through the paper without knowing it contained the story of the year, perhaps a meticulously reported and beautifully organized account of high-level white-collar crime. Taking a bold step, the new Journal runs two-column headlines on page one, sometimes even three-column headlines.

These design alterations underline a change of content that makes it a somewhat broader paper. Peter R. Kann, the publisher, says it is extending its range from the traditional realm of business into what he calls the "business of life." New features include a science column, a regular piece on "aggressively managing your health care," another on office life (Cubicle Culture), and a column on technological gadgets. In other words, nothing blindingly original. But Personal Journal, which runs as a separate section on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, constitutes a departure and may well help create a new identity.

Personal Journal, building on the success of the Weekend Journal (a section about travel and entertainment that's been running on Fridays for four years), will cover the same subjects as the Life section in another newspaper, but deal with them as news rather than features, "playing off current developments." One early feature passed on some striking advice about bidding for travel online ("don't bid more than $35 for a room until just before leaving town") and another said American automobile makers are attaching hidden charges on their cars ("The latest thing coming out of Detroit is the stealth price increase"). Consumer reporting married to the Journal's traditional integrity might turn out to be among the liveliest parts of the paper.

Suein L. Hwang's Cubicle Culture made its debut by reporting that (only 28 years since barcode scanning began) certain corporations plan to issue barcodes to employees -- so that, for instance, a clerk delivering a parcel could just grab the barcode around the recipient's neck and show it to a hand-held computer in order to record delivery. The columnist managed to find one Doug Picker at Symbol Technologies who asked, "A can of peas has its own barcode, why not us?"

The Journal, perhaps responding to reader complaints in focus groups, apparently concluded that it was hard to find your way around the paper. So the new design incorporates more reference boxes pointing us toward material we shouldn't miss. The key word here is "navigation," used three times in the first new edition, as in the publisher's statement that "We've added lots of aids to navigation." The Journal seems also to have decided that its traditional tone has become a problem. The publisher acknowledges that there are people who have always found the paper somewhat forbidding, "authoritative but perhaps a bit authoritarian." The new version sets out to be more approachable, and in many ways succeeds.

People who know newspapers often call The Wall Street Journal the smartest paper in America, but a serious paper needs serious readers -- and now the Journal needs more of them, from different demographic groups. The changes made last week are the centre of a campaign to recruit the people the publishers believe they should be reaching. Even so, Kann acknowledges that the Journal isn't for everybody. It tries, as he says, to be sophisticated and thoughtful, without apology. He promises that "We won't 'dumb down' The Wall Street Journal," and so far there's no sign of that.

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