Twelve years ago this month, a major event in the evolution of business journalism occurred. The Star-Ledger in Newark cut its printed stock listings from its business section during the first week of September 2001.
During the next decade, virtually every other metropolitan daily newspaper, and many smaller newspapers, would follow suit. That would lead to the cutting of standalone business sections, which had been supported by the stock agate.
Kevin Whitmer was an assistant managing editor of the Star-Ledger at that time, overseeing the business editor Dave Allen and assistant business editor Kevin Shinkle.
Whitmer, who is now the editor at the Star-Ledger, responded to Talking Biz News’ request for information about the decision with the following comments:
Like most papers our size we had spent the years leading into 2001 nibbling around the edges of our agate package. We had taken out pages daily and Sunday, but by 2000 we knew that that strategy was a slow march to a losing battle. We also finally admitted two other things. One was that quotes, portfolios and all kinds of market research tools were popping up all over the internet — in effect becoming an on-demand commodities that were more widely and readily available than the paper ever was on its best day. And two, we knew our market was loaded with readers who potentially would turn the Journal or Times for the full tables — and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, we saw that as an opportunity because we knew there were so many other things for readers in our market, which in many households was still a two paper market back then.
The key, though, was deciding not to take all the savings and run. Instead, Jim Willse, the editor, challenged us. What could we come up with if we reinvested a good chunk of the savings in “new” news hole and additional people to produce a full-color section packed with enterprise, graphics, analysis and advice? After several months and hundreds of templates, we landed on a 6-to-8 page daily section. The goal was to do color on every page every day and have something on every page, front to back, that readers wouldn’t expect.
By time of launch, we were making just about everything in the section from scratch, including dozens of new features. It really wasn’t a newspaper section — even though we did still have some Jersey-centric stock tables. It was a mini-magazine inside the newspaper. We were doing industry notebooks, stock picks and research graphics, salary comps, big lifts on workplace issues and career guidance. To put it another way: We viewed it with great pride as content you just didn’t see every day in a newspaper section.
We knew readers would be upset. For generations The Star-Ledger had been something of a daily encyclopedia for them. And now we were about to mess with that. We also knew there would be complaints so we drafted a strategy and recruited volunteers to work the phone bank. There were periods when it was insane, but overall I think the total calls were still under 1,000. And what’s also important to note is that the new section was live exactly a week before the world changed — from the Wednesday of Labor Day week to 9/11. Once 9/11 happened the complaints pretty much disappeared.
We wanted to add energy and flair to a lot of the things we already were doing. There was a lot of good beat coverage in the paper back then. To that, we added a lot of personal finance and investing advice and treated some of the business stuff like we had treated sports content. A lot of really good design, short items, a lot of two-way journalism, and what was an early effort to really engage with readers.
As for regrets:
1. The Business section lacked a voice. We never really did staff it with a general interest business columnist. Voice is so important to every section and that’s the one area we could have really improved — especially because we had a lot of really good niche voices.
2. We should have more aggressive taking agate out of the Sports section. After cutting NBA and NHL boxes a few years ago, we finally have removed all out-of-town baseball and football boxes. We survived that, too, and I now think to a person, the folks in our newsroom realize competing with free, real-time content that looks better than we can ever dress it up is silly. There are so many other great uses for space.