When the WSJ Competes with the NYT

David Carr’s column on the WSJ today is excellent: when he describes the behavior of the WSJ’s editors before and since Murdoch’s takeover as "a pattern of rolling complicity," he really couldn’t put it any better. But he goes further than that when he slams Murdoch’s strategy:

Mr. Murdoch has a few more billions to his credit than I do, but the paper looks to me to be surrendering much of its fundamental value. In order to make The Journal a first-read, Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Thomson are toying with the interest of those of us who have always thought of it as a can’t-miss second read.

“It is an odd and risky change from a reader and advertising standpoint,” said Lauren Rich Fine, a professor at Kent State University and a former media analyst. “They have a rich, targeted demographic, and what are they trading it for?”

As Tim Arango notes elsewhere in the NYT, the WSJ isn’t reducing its business coverage at all. As a result, it’s making what seems like a pretty safe bet: the WSJ’s business readers won’t desert it, because they can’t, and because its business coverage is better and more comprehensive than ever. But at the same time Murdoch’s trying to attract new readers, who might only want to read one newspaper and who might prefer the WSJ to the NYT.

Robert Thomson, the man in charge of this strategy, is the kind of Australian who doesn’t mince his words:

Mr. Thomson said he was not worried that expanding news coverage would alienate The Journal’s core readers. “We’ve increased the pagination to display more domestic and international news, not reduced the business story count,” he said. “It is highly amusing that left-wing media commentators who tend to regard all businesspeople as criminals or reprobates are worried about us alienating business readers.”

Jeff Bercovici says this sounds like something you might hear from Roger Ailes, and he’s right, but that doesn’t mean that Thomson is wrong. (Roger Ailes actually has a very annoying habit of being right, a lot of the time.) The best anti-Thomson argument is provided by John Gapper:

He will dilute the brand – something that a business newspaper should know all about. At the moment, the Journal has a dominant position and a clear and unambiguous image as a business and financial paper.

That not only brings it a lot of readers but an enviable appeal to advertisers. If Mr Murdoch confuses them by making it more like a watered down (and right-wing) version of the New York Times, he stands to lose a lot.

As it happens, the FT went through a similar experience in the UK a few years ago, adding more general news in an effort to compete head-on with other broadsheet papers.

I think the best that can politely be said of that experiment is that it did not work. The paper’s reputation suffered and its readers got confused. Happily, it has now recovered both its focus and its reputation.

This is a very similar argument to the one why wsj.com should not go free: you might keep all your present high-value customers, but if you get lower-value customers as well, your brand, and your appeal to advertisers, gets diluted.

That can happen: if you have super-high-end advertisers they simply might not be interested in reaching a very broad audience, only a tiny proportion of which they actually care about. But on the other hand, if you’re just about the only way of reaching that audience at all, they might not have any choice.

But in any case, the reasons why the FT failed in its attempted move into general-interest news will not necessarily apply in the case of the WSJ. The reason is simple: resources. The WSJ’s newsroom is much larger than that of the FT, and Thomson has promised all the extra resources necessary to gather the extra news. In the case of the FT, Pearson was never willing (in contrast to Murdoch) to invest the necessary money in extra journalists, with the result that its business coverage actually worsened as journalists were moved onto other beats.

The lesson from the FT’s abortive entry into general-interest news is something that I’ve said many times in the past: Pearson is the wrong owner for the FT, and really has no business being a newspaper publisher. Murdoch, by contrast, is a newspaper publisher to his toenails: he won’t make the same mistake.

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