Making sense of the publisher's preview of the redesigned Wall Street Journal.

Media criticism.
Dec. 4 2006 5:52 PM

The Wall Street Journal Gets Small

Making sense of the publisher's preview of the redesigned paper.

The Wall Street Journal redesign. Click image to expand.

It's the rare amputee who describes himself as better off without his two big toes than with them, but that's what Wall Street Journal Publisher L. Gordon Crovitz attempts today in a "Letter From the Publisher" on the paper's op-ed page.

As announced more than a year ago, the girthsome Journal will lose 3 inches in width starting Jan. 2, giving it a similar dimension as other newspapers that have downsized in the name of cutting their newsprint costs—the Washington Post,the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. The New York Times gets its paring in summer 2007.

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Instead of leveling with his readers about the reasons behind his paper's new slim profile—to save money—Crovitz insults their intelligence by claiming the change is for the "convenience" of readers. Calling it an "easier-to-handle size," he repeats the testimony of one reader who, upon seeing a prototype of the smaller Journal, said, "I fly First Class, but when I'm reading the Journal now I knock over my neighbor's orange juice. That won't happen anymore."

People have been flying first class and reading their Wall Street Journals for more than a half century. Suddenly the size is a problem? Doesn't Crovitz understand that he's writing for one of the most business-literate audiences in the nation, and that they roll their eyes when a manufacturer says he shrank the product for the benefit of the customer?

Crovitz knows all about artful obfuscation, having served on the Journal's editorial page before migrating to the paper's business side in the mid-1990s. While still on the Journal editorial page, Crovitz and the page were pilloried by Stuart Taylor Jr. in a 1989 American Lawyer piece. "They were almost indifferent as to whether what they wanted to say comported with dispassionate factual reality," Taylor told the Columbia Journalism Review in 1996.

In the New York Times, reporter Katharine Q. Seelye writes it straight about the Journal redesign, explaining that the paper's news hole will fall by 10 percent and its Page One will lose a whole column. Seelye collects this candid quotation from the paper's design consultant, Mario Garcia, about difficulties in making the new, skinny Page One work: "It was like dressing Kate Moss."

While Crovitz boasts about the 10 percent growth in Journal subscriptions over the "most recent circulation period—the fastest rate since 1980—at a time when most newspapers and magazines experienced declines," Seelye gives a more sober picture in the Times: "Like most big papers, the Journal's circulation is declining. For the six-month period ended in September, its combined print and online circulation of 2.04 million was down by almost 2 percent from the six months a year earlier."

I wonder how many of the editorial changes Crovitz writes about will really be "improvements." He promises better "alignment" between the print edition and the Web version; "more interpretation, analysis and context"; a new feature called "Today's Agenda," pegged to the economic and corporate news due for release that day; more "value-added analysis of financial data"; double the arts and leisure pages; and a new free Web presence with Dow Jones news, data, and tools. (Currently, only select articles and editorials appear on the free section of WSJ.com.)

The rejigged Journal will also brim with summaries of all sorts. The paper plans to digest news from other news sources in one column, summarize "the key news by industry and news topic" in another, and even condense the paper's long features to "draw out the key meaning." Sounds like they'll be paying royalties to USA Today, doesn't it?

For the sake of Journal readers—which include me—I hope the changes are for the better, but Seelye's reporting convinces me that the redesign is part of a greater Wall Street Journal retreat. She notes that it recently closed its Canadian bureau (before you e-mail me the predictable Canada joke, remember that the frostbacks are the United States' biggest trading partner), and that it has reduced its overseas operations.

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