There's a perception out there that American newspapers are being strangled by forces beyond their control—technology, demographics, changing lifestyles, etc.
Maybe so. But there's a growing body of evidence that what we're really witnessing is an assisted suicide. Watch the behavior of the newspaper industry, and you have to conclude it has some kind of sick death wish. How else to explain its unflagging determination to do whatever it takes to bore and alienate readers?
The latest example is the The Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition, which arrived for the first time last Saturday at more than a million mailboxes, driveways, and doorsteps. If the owners of those doorsteps are anything like me, they woke up that morning with a little tingle of anticipation.
In this moment of high cynicism and I-can't-remember-where-I-saw-it media jadedness, it's a little embarrassing to admit you're crazy about a particular news outlet. Deep breath, and here goes: I love The Wall Street Journal. Love the archaic text-heavy look; the little hand-done portraits of story subjects ("hedcuts," to the trade); the What's News column; the formulaic yet delightful front-page features ("A-heds"); the market-speak; the straight-ahead Washington and international coverage. I even love the Money & Investing section's dense profusion of agate type. And, ideology aside, the paper's opinion pages are a marvel of cogent argument and tight editing—for pure craft, no liberal paper can touch them.
The Journal isn't just a great newspaper, it's a testament to the way media outlets can adapt and mature over time. From its 19th-century origins in strictly financial news, The Journal has grown up into a sprawling daily portrait of the world in numbers and words. The numbers are reliable, and the words are put together with unusual care and a deft economy.
So when the paper starting pounding the drum about its new Saturday edition—"Weekends will never be the same," the ads promised—there was good reason to expect something truly excellent. Though the new edition is currently included with all regular subscriptions, I would happily have paid for it in advance, sight unseen. There aren't many media outlets I'd say that about. But this is The Journal, for God's sake. The paper's been working on this project for several years, at great expense. [Disclosure: Last year, a senior Journal editor exchanged several e-mails with my wife about writing for the Saturday paper, but nothing came of it.] And there's a lot riding on it: Close Journal-watchers have touted the Weekend Edition, with its potential for a whole new ad revenue stream, as the way to restore the vitality (and stock price) of deeply troubled parent company Dow Jones.
They couldn't possibly screw this up.
But they did. In one of the more spectacular bellyflops of modern media history, The Journal published a newspaper without a single inspired or memorable moment—a paper that felt like work to read, on the very day most of us are not working.
The disaster began right on the front page, which had an instant-yawn effect thanks to a large above-the-fold photo of an American who moved to Sri Lanka to help a village recover from the tsunami, under the tensionless headline "Dropping Everything." It looked more like an ad for some well-meaning charity than a news story.
The piece was baggy and unfocused, though it had some good reporting. If it had run in some second- or third-tier paper, I would have been mildly impressed. But as the marquee story in the debut edition of a wildly heralded new product from one of the world's premier broadsheets, it just didn't have the juice. There was nothing to take away with you, nothing you wanted to retail with friends and colleagues—always the mark of a great Journal story.
The rest of the front page fell similarly flat. The lede news story, about Wal-Mart, was much less compelling than a Katrina-related story about Wal-Mart's emergency planning czar that ran recently on the front of the Marketplace section. The A-hed was more of a C-minus-hed.
Most shocking of all was the Pursuits section, inspired by the popular Friday Weekend Journal, with its perky, user-friendly coverage of movies, wine, furniture, real estate, and other indulgences. Weekend Journal always has a terrific guilty-pleasure magnetism, even when it's creating fake trends, like the recent story on an alleged new craze for gigantic home fish tanks costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
No such fun in the Saturday paper, which reviewed soft-soled work shoes for men ... revealed Wynton Marsalis's five favorite jazz CDs ... and reported on the latest offerings in women's bicycles. A few pages in, I was so bored, I was aching for a mega-fish tank I could drown in.
I don't know what the minds behind this project are thinking. Maybe they figure people don't want to be challenged on the weekend—that they want something bland and easy to chew, like a Maalox tablet. Maybe they took everything the focus groups told them and threw it into a blender, and this is the mush that came out.
It's a like a scary cyborg of The Journal—a convincing, lifelike resemblance, but no heart or soul inside. Perhaps, as the weeks pass, it will learn to be better. But don't hold your breath: This is the newspaper business, where getting new products horribly wrong is a way of life.