The Wall Street Journal's "Personal Journal."

The Wall Street Journal's "Personal Journal."

The Wall Street Journal's "Personal Journal."

Media criticism.
Nov. 14 2002 6:56 PM

Soft News and Hard Candy

The Wall Street Journal's "Personal Journal" is too much of a good thing.

Personal Journal

When the Wall Street Journal launched its spending-and-getting "Personal Journal" section six months ago, one critic accused the paper's chefs of adding sweetener to the formula to please advertisers. Wasn't this dramatic increase in consumer friendly coverage of travel, cars, sports, wine, food, catalogs, books, real estate, health care, investing, and more outside the august Journal's mandate?

But the truth is the paper was quarrying for candy as far back as the early 1940s, when Journal auteur Bernard Kilgore began the transformation of the generic financial sheet into a great newspaper. To the dust of numbers and charts, Kilgore added life. He featurized the front page to encourage readers to linger over it, but demanded that in exploring a story's nuances reporters not waste the business reader's valuable time. He added a digest of the day's most important happenings under the "What's News" rubric to give readers an instant take on events, and the "Washington Wire" to help the business community keep its eye on government. Kilgore's innovations may sound old-hat today, but in conjuring a business newspaper that excelled also at non-business coverage he modernized the newspaper industry.

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The wee Journal that Kilgore inherited in 1941 grew from a 33,000 circulation to 1.1 million by 1967, when he died at the age of 59. The paper sustained its dramatic circulation growth for another decade and a half by adding regional printing plants until it ran out of new domestic markets to conquer, and circ peaked at 2 million in 1983. Seeking more Lebensraum, Journal started editions in Asia (1976) and Europe (1983). Meanwhile, back at the mother ship, featurization of the news continued as the paper added law to its beat and started two new sections filled with news-you-can-use for the upper-income, professional set: "Money & Investing" (1980), whose identity is self-evident, and "Marketplace" (1988), which is nominally about marketing but also includes features and columns about career planning, managing, and more.

As it tapped out the business reader niche in the early '80s, the Journal found itself banging heads with two other newspapers with national ambitions, the new USA Today and the New York Times, general interest dailies that appealed to much larger audiences. Today, with the battle for national newspaper supremacy still joined (see Fortune magazine's excellent feature, "Deadline U.S.A.," by Nicholas Stein), Journal circulation has stalled at 1.8 million, just about where it's been since 1998, compared to 2.2 million for USA Today and 1.2 million (daily) for the New York Times (Sunday, 1.6 million).

Journal readers are old—averaging 50, and aging—and too male to suit Madison Avenue. Females accounted for only 13 percent of Journal subscribers in 1985, and only 17 percent in 1999, according to Dow Jones, the paper's corporate parent, even though women occupy corporate cubicles and boardrooms in ever growing numbers. The youth and femme appeal of "Personal Journal" is transparent.

It would be unfair to describe "Personal Journal" as the paper's "Women's Section." Men buy art, houses, cars, and travel. They invest, go to movies, read books, and are even known to shop via catalog, all topics that "Personal Journal" covers expertly. But only an unreconstructed feminist would ignore PJ's potential chick factor. How many men would pose the question, "Is a face-lift ever allowed as a work or medical tax deduction?" as Mary Dirkes of Lathrup Village, Mich., did in the "Ask Personal Journal" column in October. (No, came the ruling from writer Lynn Asinof, unless surgery is needed to correct a facial deformity.)

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To be fair, "Personal Journal" is mostly about the problems of money and power, two subjects that have never produced in the Journal any self-consciousness or sentimentality. "Journal subscribers' interests go beyond just business. They have a passion for dressing well, home decorating and fine arts," boasts this Journal advertising department Web page. "Wall Street Journal subscribers have an average household income of $338,200 and an average household net worth of $2,176,700—well over twice that of affluent adults." That the buildout of the house of Kilgore should eventually include a lifestyle wing where the ad department could set up shop was only logical.

The section's roots trace back to 1998, when Deputy Managing Editor Joanne Lipman oversaw the creation of Friday "Weekend Journal," a similar spending-and-getting section that covers the arts heavily and oddly includes a last page of op-eddy spinach, prepared by the Journal's editorial page. Proving a hit with advertisers as well as readers, "Weekend" encouraged the paper to re-create its magic on other weekdays and gave Lipman the nod.

Between the "Weekend Journal" and the "Personal Journal" came, of course, the stock market fizzle, which has clobbered Journal ad revenues and eviscerated Dow Jones stock. Ad lineage for the paper has been down in eight successive quarters, with no end in sight until the financial and technology sections, which fueled the Journal in the boom years, return. On Wall Street, the Dow Jones stock continues its plunge while the parent companies of the Journal's daily competitors, the New York Times Co. and Gannett, have recovered from the fizzle. (See accompanying stock chart.) Against this bad news, the Journal practiced yield management by increasing its subscription price from $175 to $189 in October.

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While Madison Avenue embraced the "Weekend Journal" and continues to support it even in the down market—its revenues rose last year, according to Crain's New York Business, while the rest of the paper's dropped—"Personal Journal" struggles. Full-page house ads routinely run on the section's back page. "Hard news is in, and luxury goods advertising is harder to land,"Crain's reports. In other words, even ad buyers can consume only so much candy.

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Fortune reports that the fragmentation of the TV audience has made newspapers a better buy for advertisers in search of affluent consumers, a trend that would seem to play to the Journal's advantage. Affluent consumers spent 24 percent more in 2001 than they did in 1998, before the fall, according to a cited study. But if an advertiser wants to reach an affluent, "leisure reader" who primary passion is food, or house and garden, or gizmos, or books, the New York Times already offers a free-standing weekly sections on each of those topics. And in the travel category, the Times offers not one but now two weekly sections. If you were a media buyer chasing the affluent, where might you be inclined to sink your national dollars? All those single-topic Times sections, where you can nuzzle up against similarly themed pieces, or the grab bag of "Personal Journal"?

"In 1996 only 34% of the [New York Times'] ads ran in the national edition," reports Fortune. "By 2001 the figure had swelled to more than 86%. The result is that the Times is suddenly encroaching on territory the Journal and USA Today long had to themselves." While the Times chases the affluent, USA Today squeezes the Journal from the middle-class side of the ad market. USA Today essentially heisted a big chunk of the Journal's travel-related ad revenue between 1986 and 1996, Fortune reports.

It's not that the "Personal Journal" candy isn't any good. I'm slightly abashed to say that it's very good without the hint of an aftertaste. My primary disappointments are 1) that it doesn't appear on Mondays because the Journal devotes that day to rotating "special" sections with sexless coverage on mutual funds, technology, personal health, small business, etc.; and 2) that Walt Mossberg's computer column inexplicably runs in its original "Marketplace" parking place.

Readers seem to enjoy "Personal Journal," too, if you trust anecdotal reports and a study commissioned by the Journal,which produced approval ratings for the section that rival those bestowed on Saddam Hussein in the last Iraqi election.

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I loved the "Personal Journal" story this week on how to take advantage of the travel recession to get a great deal at the Rocky Mountain resorts—and I don't even ski. What's not to love about well-done stories that tell you how to get the best deal on a cell phone or prescription drugs, or the extreme schadenfreude of a story headlined "Debt Problems Hit Even the Wealthy—Biggest Surge in Borrowing Is Among Those With Highest Incomes; Liquidating the 401(k)"? The piece on getting Uncle Sam to cover the price of your massage—if not your facelift—struck me as enterprising, and the high quality of the ongoing health and financial columns more than keep Bernard Kilgore's promise not to waste reader time. It's great fun to be entertained while being edified.

But you can only add so much milk and sugar to strong coffee before it becomes dessert. In the Journal's half-century-plus migration from Wall Street to Main Street to Rodeo Drive, it may have finally strayed too far from its "core mission"—as business types put it—with "Personal Journal." With the rapidly growing Financial Timesinvading its financial niche and CNBC and the New York Times expanding business coverage, the Journal could find itself outflanked. This week, the Journal all but invited the competition to come and get its lunch by eliminating 23 reporters, including the illustrious Milo Geyelin, Richard Schmitt, and Francine Schwadel, as it shuttered its law and regional business groups. Dow Jones CEO Peter R. Kann made all the proper noises about right-sizing his company in the face of an economic downturn, but I wonder if subscribers would vote for "Personal Journal" candy over hard-news vegetables if given a ballot.

We know which way Dow Jones would vote. Speaking to Crain's in June, Jill Kaplan, general manager of "Personal Journal" and "Weekend Journal," said the company was "committed to putting out a section our subscribers said was important, and we will publish it, regardless of whether we have 30 pages of ads or four pages."

[Disclosure: Over the years, the Wall Street Journal has been kind enough to run a couple of op-eds and book reviews by me. Also, the spouse of a Slate staffer (not mine) works at "Personal Journal."]

Candy is dandy but newspapers are hipper. I read my mail at pressbox@hotmail.com.