OLD Media Moves

Q&A with Wall Street Journal publisher

January 10, 2007

Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz recently oversaw a redesign of the newspaper, making it smaller, but also focusing it more on analysis instead of breaking news.

Crovitz began his career at Dow Jones in 1980 as a summer intern writing editorials for The Journal. He was founding editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe in Brussels in 1982 and returned to New York in 1984 as an editorial page writer for the U.S. Journal. In 1986, he was appointed to the Journal’s editorial board, and became assistant editor, administration, for the editorial page.

He also launched and wrote the weekly Journal column, “Rule of Law.” From 1990 to 1992, Crovitz also wrote editorials for Barron’s. Crovitz won a Gerald Loeb Award for business commentary in 1990.

Crovitz recently discussed the redesign and what it means for the business journalists at the Journal, as well as other issues surrounding the Journal, with Talking Biz News. Below is an edited transcript.

1. With the redesign, the Journal’s reporters will be writing more analysis and leaving the breaking news to Dow Jones. Won’t that mean that it will take more time to write their stories?

Our goal is to free Journal reporters to focus on “what the news means,� beyond simply “what happened yesterday.� One way we’re making this possible is that Journal colleagues at Dow Jones Newswires have taken on the responsibility to handle the first coverage across the company of disclosure-based news, such as news releases, earnings filings and the like. Dow Jones Newswires must publish this news in real time among its 12,000 news items every 24 hours for its financial professional customers. If Journal reporters have more information they’d like to add to these stories during the day, this will appear at the Wall Street Journal Online and on Dow Jones Newswires. Otherwise, they are then free to Gordon Crovitzfocus on crafting coverage for the next day’s print Journal, explaining what the news means, or put another way, the second-day story as the first print Journal story.

To give an example, Circuit City recently reported soft earnings. Dow Jones Newswires and the Online Journal covered the story in real time, in great detail for people focused on Circuit City. The next day’s print Journal page-one story went behind the earnings statement to focus on the main cause of the earnings surprise, which was the price wars on HDTVs, with the headline, “Hefty Discounting of Flat-Panel TVs Pinches Retailers; Crowded Field of Rivals Slash Prices to Win Sales; A Jolt from Circuit City.�

2. If the paper will have more analysis, which implies longer stories, then how will it continue to run the same amount of articles?

We’ve introduced new features, such as the “In Brief� feature throughout the newspaper, that will allow us to keep our readers informed about what happened the day before, but to do this in much less space than before—recognizing that our readers are increasingly already aware of the stories of the previous day. This frees up more space for the truly distinctive, differentiated and forward-leaning stories our readers want from the Journal.

3. How involved was the news staff in the redesign?

Paul SteigerVery. Under the leadership of Managing Editor Paul Steiger, editors, bureau chiefs and reporters from every section and across both print and online were very involved. They contributed to all the important news innovations in the rethought Journal, from new content features to new ways for print and online to interact to design changes. Many of them also watched focus groups of readers and prospective readers across the country to get a flavor of what readers are looking for from the Journal.

4. How did readers’ changing habits influence what the Journal is doing?

I would say that changes in readers’ habits was the prime driver for our changes. Within Dow Jones, we referred to this project as “Journal 3.0: Newspaper for the Digital Age.� The inspiration was the remarkable change in how our kind of readers now get their news and information, which is from many sources, print and online, all day long. We did surveys, focus groups and other research to understand better how technology had changed how people consume news. What we heard from readers was that they wanted more focus on what the news means, better navigation of the print Journal and better alignment between the print and online Journal so that they understood better how to use both versions.

I would say that changes in readers’ habits was the prime driver for our changes. Within Dow Jones, we referred to this project as “Journal 3.0: Newspaper for the Digital Age.� The inspiration was the remarkable change in how our kind of readers now get their news and information, which is from many sources, print and online, all day long. We did surveys, focus groups and other research to understand better how technology had changed how people consume news. What we heard from readers was that they wanted more focus on what the news means, better navigation of the print Journal and better alignment between the print and online Journal so that they understood better how to use both versions.

5. The Journal is one of a few print publications to charge for its online content, which is getting an added boost with the redesign. Do you see charging for information on the Internet as a wave of the future for all media?

We are delighted to have built a successful subscription model online, thanks to the authority that comes with the Journal brand in every medium, the business focus of our coverage that more easily justifies a a paid model than perhaps general interest or other news does and the state-of-the-art Web editing, platform and design. We now have just under 800,000 people paying a subscription price ($99 per year or $59 per year for print subscribers) to access the Wall Street Journal Online. For some perspective, this means the online Journal has more paying subscribers than all but three newspapers in the U.S.—one of which of course is the print Journal (USA Today and the N.Y. Times are the other two).

This means WSJ.com has more paying subscribers even than such great names in journalism as the print Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and L.A. Times. This stream of subscription revenue is very important in ensuring that WSJ.com is able to continue to innovate, from new blogs to podcasts to online video. I am very concerned that many other publishers with high-quality news brands have devalued their brands by trying to charge in one medium (print) while giving away access to brands and content in another medium (online). But I understand that it’s very hard to change strategies.

Once a publisher gives away the brand and content online, it’s very hard to persuade readers that the brands and content are worth paying to access. And I also understand that to justify a subscription price, the brand and content must be highly, highly differentiated from anything else available online. WSJ.com is more different from other business sources online than, say, one general-interest news site is different from another, where so much of the news is commoditized.

Try this experiment: Call up four or five well-known Web site of general-interest news, cover up the logo, and see how very similar they are to one another in the news they cover and in how they cover the news. It’s not surprising that people won’t pay to access any particular site when so many are so similar and all available at the click of a mouse. No site comes close to matching WSJ.com for the speed, breadth or depth of its business coverage.

At Dow Jones, we think that we now have the best of both worlds—very successful subscription models for the Journal and for Barron’s, plus a number of Journal services sites such as CareerJournal, RealEstateJournal and StartUpJournal that are free to users, plus MarketWatch, which is also free to users. This means we have a very large inventory for online advertising reaching a very affluent, influential and engaged audience, while also having sizable and highly profitable subscription revenues.

6. What did the Journal hope to accomplish by giving away free papers and providing free access to its site on Tuesday?

Our reader research suggested that if we could get people to try the redesigned print Journal that they would like it, so we gave away more than 500,000 copies at newsstands on launch day, Jan. 2. We also wanted people to have the chance to see what we meant by saying that the print Journal and the online Journal are perfect compliments, so also made WSJ.com free for the day Some publishers say they aspire to get to the point where they’re indifferent whether someone accesses their news in print or online. That’s not our ambition. We want people to access the Journal all day long, using the medium that is most useful for the task at hand: The print Journal over breakfast to understand what the news means, the BlackBerry or mobile phone edition for real-time updates on the way into the office and WSJ.com on the desktop for news as it happens all day long.

7. How hard is it to attract readers to the Journal who aren’t all that interested in business?

In the time since I first started working at the Journal in 1980, we’ve vastly expanded the areas of coverage so that now the Journal’s readership includes professionals from all fields, well beyond business or financial services. Our coverage is second to none in areas including technology, politics, economics, health and topics we call the “business of life,� such as personal finance, travel, fashion and consumer electronics. And of course our editorial page is very widely read, both by people who agree with its mission of “free people and free markets� and those who do not agree but who admire the quality of its journalism.

8. The elimination of some stock and mutual fund listings from the paper hasn’t garnered much attention. Do you think most readers simply accept the fact that they will get that information online in the future?

We have done considerable research among our readers over the years on how many of them access basic closing prices in the newspaper. Unsurprisingly, almost all our readers get the basic information online. As part of the relaunch of the print Journal, we also created the online Markets Data Center as a free part of WSJ.com, which includes information on more than 50,000 stocks and mutual funds, many more than could ever fit into a newspaper. In print, our readers prefer analysis of financial data, beyond pure closing prices.

That said, we still report on the closing prices of some 1,500 stocks, representing 94% of the market capitalization, and still publish full listings in our weekend edition.

9. How much has the redesign and the changes that it’s bringing about been discussed during the current union talks?

There is widespread pride in the redesign, both among union members and non-members. Indeed, we had some 600 Journal colleagues working on December weekends to ensure that we’d have a smooth transition to the new size for the Journal. The union discussions tend to focus on compensation and benefits topics.

10. You mentioned that the Journal needs to continue the legacy of Barney Kilgore. How do you think it’s doing that?

I hope we’re true to the remarkable legacy of Barney Kilgore. The Kilgore influence, I think, permeates everything we do. His approach certainly influenced the thinking on how the print Journal should evolve to remain essential even in a digital age. It was Kilgore who transformed the Journal starting in the early 1940s from a narrow financial newspaper serving the northeast into a national newspaper serving a national, now global, audience of business people and other professionals. He had the great inspiration that if the Journal could attract this kind of community of interest, Journal reporters and editors could focus on what the news means to this distinct set of readers, with common interests.

He once said, “If you are publishing in Elkhart, Ind., you have got to edit for the Elkhart reader. The business community is our Elkhart.� And he said that the Journal “serves a community which is not geographic, except in a national sense, but includes so many different fields and interests and shapes and sizes that its community behaves more like a city than it does any occupation or interest.� He also said something that we try to keep in mind all the time: “Remember: The easiest thing for the reader is to quit reading.�
I’d like to think that Kilgore would recognize this latest evolution of the Journal as building on the foundation he created.

11. You mentioned earlier that the Journal will focus more on “exclusive” stories. How can that be accomplished in an increasingly competitive business journalism world?

We do live in an increasingly competitive world of business journalism, with new entrants from bloggers to highly specialized news services for virtually every profession. But the Journal, by far, produces more market-moving scoops than any other outlet—probably more than all other news outlets combined. Journal reporters and editors are the most skilled business journalists in the world, with strong sourcing that comes with a reputation we aim always to meet for accuracy and fairness. Many of these market-moving scoops appear first in our online real-time outlets.

Then there are exclusives that reflect extraordinary enterprise, such as the timing of options for corporate executives, which was the biggest business story of 2006. This story resulted from the work of a recent Yale math major in our Boston bureau who used complex algorithms to show that the timing of options at low points in the share value was unlikely up to 300 million to one odds against. There are also exclusives of analysis and perspective, as well as the kind of journalism that only the Journal can do, such as our offbeat A-heds.

The Journal will grow yet stronger as Journal reporters and editors are able to spend more of their time of this kind of distinctive journalism that goes well beyond simply what happened the day before.

12. As a former reporter yourself, how do you identify with the changes the WSJ journalists are going through?

Change always brings its own challenges, but so many in the news industry and so many newspapers have yet to find their role in this digital age. At this point, I think much of the pessimism in the industry is driven by this fact: In an era of change, the only thing that may cause more anxiety than change is a failure to change. At the Journal, we’re acknowledging the new world in which we operate and embracing change.

Journal reporters and editors have increasing opportunities to focus on the kind of unique journalism that they came to the Journal to do. In the process, readers will benefit and the Journal will become even more essential.

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