Changes at the WSJ

May 27, 2008

When Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal, everyone was sure it would change — they just didn’t know how.

Now some of the early results are in. And so far, at least, it’s pretty apparent that under Murdoch, the WSJ is being pushed to be snappier, newsier, less business-oriented and less analytic.

You can argue the wisdom of that. On his excellent blog, The Big Picture, financial maven Barry Ritholtz has made a case that Murdoch is angering his large core of business readers in an effort to duplicate general news and political coverage already available in the New York Times and USA Today.

It’s not possible to link to individual Ritholtz posts, but here’s a recent excerpt:

“When Murdoch took over Dow Jones, he had some very specific plans in mind for the crown jewel of the company, the Wall Street Journal. Murdoch recognizes that the WSJ dominates the space for business and financial reporting. Just imagine what we could do with that platform, went the thinking, if we could only extend that reach and influence beyond financial news. In short, become more like the NYT.

In my opinion, this is a deeply misguided and risky undertaking, driven more by ego than profit motive.

End excerpt. Ritholtz goes on to say that Murdoch risks alienating the hard-core financial reader who values — and pays a premium for — the Journal’s in-depth and thorough business coverage.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism recently studied the pre- and post-Murdoch WSJ. They found much more coverage of political and foreign news — and about half the coverage of business news.

What does this mean to anyone in the business of pitching stories to the Journal? It means you have half the chance you had before, and even less unless your story is news as opposed to a big-picture, analytical or trend story.

I just had first-hand experience of that. I was talking to a WSJ editor about one of our clients, who’s bringing a new consumer product to the U.S. market in a high-profile category. I was pitching a piece looking at the challenges of breaking into the U.S. market with a new product; I could offer interviews with top company executives and a lot of compelling supporting info. It was basically a story about consumer marketing, strategy and positioning.

Sorry, he said — not newsy enough. They might well have done that story before, he said, but now it needed a newsier peg to get any play. Fortunately for me, I also had an intriguing news peg, and we’re continuing the discussion.

But the Journal, never easy to crack, just got a lot tougher.