Is the Wall Street Journal now the Main Street Journal?
I used to love the Wall Street Journal. Not too long ago it had the most comprehensive business, economics and finance news in the world, extremely well-written in-depth long-form pieces with “moral force” as a former editor called it, and analysis of what was driving business trends – not just blindly reporting what hit the wires yesterday. Back then, it was the most intelligent, balanced, unsensational paper around (outside of the editorials) – and one that every leading businessman read daily for exactly those reasons.
Since Rupert Murdoch took over the paper in 2007 however, it has deteriorated quite noticeably on each of those fronts. This isn’t exactly breaking news – his bent to tabloidize, politicize, de-businessize, and move the WSJ downmarket has been widely reported here, here, here, and here.
Quantifying the Changes
Since I’m in business school right now with access to ProQuest, I decided to gather some data to quantify Murdoch’s changes to the WSJ. I took the latest week of the 2010 WSJ: Monday 3/29 – Saturday 4/3 and compared it to the comparable pre-Murdoch week in 2006: Wednesday 3/29 – Tuesday 4/4. Each week covered five business days and a Saturday edition, included a quarterly market report, and one special section (in 2010 it was a section devoted to Brazil, in 2006 it was a Technology section). This was the same point in the presidential election cycle, so in theory political news as a % of total news should be the same.
I compiled the word counts by day, and sorted by article topic. Obviously this is a somewhat small sample size, but the results are quite telling:
- Overall words per week in the WSJ are +1% in 2010 vs 2006, although that is almost all driven by the extra 35,000 words in the Saturday edition. Murdoch’s WSJ is actually 8% or 4,900 words smaller each day Monday-Friday than the pre-Murdoch WSJ.
- Most alarmingly, there were 235,551 words on business/economics/finance in the 2006 week, vs only 171,478 in 2010. Yes, Murdoch actually cut 37% or 64,000 words of business, economics, finance from the Wall Street Journal each week. This is not a joke.
- But fear not, WSJ reader, you now get an extra 50,000 words a week of non-business/economics/finance news – mostly very basic political and general news stories from the AP wire rewritten by WSJ staff writers adding no value – ie simply reporting what happened yesterday, without analysis or indepth investigation – plus an extra 20,000 words of WSJ Opinion pages each week. Aren’t we lucky?
- One of the few Murdoch additions to the WSJ I enjoyed was the Saturday Weekend Investor pullout – until I realized that the WSJ actually runs 30% less personal finance words than they did in 2006. Instead of running several personal finance articles a day, the Murdoch WSJ bundles them together on one day, and reduces the overall personal finance word count – clever!
- Finally, the change I was most expecting to see was the elimination of >1,000 word long-form articles in the WSJ. These used to be my favorite part of the paper, and as you can see below, Murdoch and his imported editors have worked to eliminate these articles. In the 2006 week there were 10 additional >2,000 word articles, 2 additional 1,500-1,999 word articles, and 42 additional 1,000–1,499 word articles than the WSJ gave us in 2010.
- As would be expected, the elimination of >1,000 word articles fell disproportionately on the business/economics/finance stories. There were 62 such >1,000 word business focused articles in the 2006 week vs just 18 in the 2010 week. These were (and still are) the best stories in the WSJ, providing insights not found anywhere else with analysis behind business trends, management practices that you could apply to your company, detailed profiles of companies, and lengthy articles that make the reader think. By cutting 71% of these articles, Murdoch has cut out 71% of the heart of the WSJ, ruining the once great paper. Thanks Rupert!
Cancelling my subscription
Compiling all this data was actually quite a bit cathartic, confirming with data what I’d already known about the WSJ as I spend less and less time reading it — the WSJ is becoming increasingly irrelevant each day to business leaders.
I’m sure Murdoch would point to his growing subscription base as “proof” that he knows what he’s doing, but if dumbing down the WSJ is part of his master plan to build a national conservative paper I (and I suspect most business leaders) want no part of it.
Here’s a thought experiment: if Murdoch’s 2010 business-lite, politics, graphics and sensationalized headline heavy version of the WSJ was started from scratch as the Fox News Journal on the day he bought the WSJ, but the old WSJ continued in its prior business-focused form, what do you think the circulation counts would be today? Which paper would business leaders read?
I think we all know the answer, and can see why Murdoch was willing to overpay $2.4B for the WSJ in 2007 – so that he could leech off the WSJ’s brand equity and inertia of its existing subscription base, to fund his new flagship conservative paper while incrementally getting rid of what made the WSJ great. After all, if people really wanted what Murdoch is selling in the 2010 WSJ, why not just start from scratch?
It’s incredibly unfortunate what happened to the old WSJ, but as Bill Belichick says – it is what it is – and the bottom line is that there is no need to be beholden to a dumbed-down WSJ that you only subscribe to because it is named the WSJ, and was once great. The Economist, FT, Bloomberg News, revamped Bloomberg Business Week and many financial blogs all provide articles that move markets and provide indepth business content that the WSJ used to provide in spades.
I’ve noticed I spend less and less time reading the paper each day, but I still stuck with the paper until a fairly innocuous story last Saturday opened my eyes to how just how far the WSJ has moved towards becoming a USA Today
If I Rupert Murdoch for a day, a few things I would change:
- Add more business/finance/economics words to the WSJ
- Bring back the long-form investigative “off news cycle” stories that made the WSJ what it used to be
- Get rid of all useless political/general interest stories that will not move the markets (i.e. “Teen Widow Suspected in Moscow Blast” — the moronic Saturday WSJ article that set me off to compile this data)
- Eliminate misleading tabloidy headlines, reinstate the old three-tier headlines
- Restore the vertical layout of the paper – it is much more convenient when on the subway, bus, etc to be able to read an entire article without having to refold the paper to see second half of a story.
- Stop the full page bolded headlines at top of nearly every internal page - these are larger and bolder fonts than the WSJ used to use to announce presidential election winners.
- Eliminate most pictures – next time you read the WSJ make a mental note of how much value is added from each picture – it’s close to none.
- Reinstate paragraph breaks with bolded paragraph titles in longer articles
- Hire editors to actually edit the copy to eliminate typos, instead of merely applying political bias to headlines.
- Eliminate sports page – I’m a huge sports fan, in Murdoch’s target demo but find this page completely useless. Again, why is this in the WSJ?
- Bring back breakingviews and the old “Heard on the Street”. The new half-page bizarrely formatted “Heard on the Street” takes longer to read, and leaves you with less insights than before – hard to achieve.
Details on the data
I compiled the WSJ data from ProQuest. An Excel spreadsheet listing all the articles, with word counts and topic classification is attached. Classifying each article into one topic is fairly straightforward, although there may be a few to disagree on – feel free to download and re-categorize the articles as you wish.