Off Message January 2007

Let's Get Small

Smaller is considered better for most media delivery devices. But for The Wall Street Journal?
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The redesigned Wall Street Journal finally arrived this week and, as promised, it is smaller than the old one—quite a bit smaller, side to side. The classic front page has lost a whole column of type.

In a rational world, this shrinkage would not necessarily cause gripes or gibes, certainly not among us news consumers. I liked the new size right away, and when I put it next to the now-wider New York Times, the latter suddenly looked ungainly and barely portable.

Besides, when it comes to media delivery devices, smaller is almost always considered better—not just better but wondrous, a giant step forward. Think of the hosannas for the teensy iPod Shuffle and the skinny Motorola Razr. The obvious exception is wide-screen TVs, but even there the ideal is wider and thinner.

Yet, when a low-technology medium physically reduces itself, the rules are reversed, even though the benefits (simplicity, portability) are analogous. In paper media, smallness is an implicit embarrassment, a sign of failure. Every time a newspaper cuts its size to save newsprint costs—The Journal is just the newest member of a club that includes The Washington Post and USA Today—the response is cynical titters. The Small Street Journal jokes have been making the rounds.

Last weekend, The New York Times (which has slated its own downsizing for later this year) ran a story taking undisguised pleasure in the fact that The Journal had unluckily chosen to launch its new look on January 2, a day when Wall Street itself was closed in honor of President Ford's funeral. "You know what they say about the best-laid plans," the story began gleefully. "The Wall Street Journal is now an expert."

On the same day, the International Association of Publishing Employees, which is fighting The Journal over pay and benefits issues, took out an ad in The Times headlined, 'The Size of the Paper Isn't the Only Thing Shrinking at The Wall Street Journal." The picture showed a hand holding a Journal the size of a waffle.

I smiled, too. But why? On one level, the humor is based on obvious facts. Paper takes up physical space in a way that digital media do not. And paper-based media are all about filling that space with content and with the ads that pay the bills. If paper media are big and thick, they appear to be doing something right. If they are shrinking, so, we assume, is the business itself.

It's not a foolish assumption. The Journal says it lately has a growing subscriber base, but that actually depends on how you slice the numbers. And The Journal is certainly not immune from the broad downturn in newspapers that's been going on for years.

Fine. But I think there's another reason that miniaturization and other changes under way in the flailing newspaper business are greeted with widespread doubt and derision: the ham-fisted way the papers talk about themselves. The hypocrisy and tone deafness can be breathtaking.

The debut of the smaller Journal came with a ponderous eight-page "Reader's Guide" full of throat-clearing ("Today's changes ... are part of a tradition of innovation that began with The Journal's founding in 1889"), self-congratulation ("Embracing Change to Build on a Tradition of Excellence"), pandering ("How the Changing Needs of Readers Drive the New Design of The Journal"), and needlessly complex explanations of other design changes.

The lead piece by publisher L. Gordon Crovitz took eight long paragraphs to get to the most obvious issue: "We've reduced the width of the newspaper." He attributed this change, first and foremost, to reader requests, referring only parenthetically to what everyone knows is the crucial factor, newsprint costs.

This is classic top-down mediaspeak, pomposity rooted in insecurity. It's why newspapers are the butt of so many jokes, while relatively lightweight New Media outlets are taken seriously. They seem to speak more plainly and with less guile.

Modern news consumers are skeptical of all news outlets. Why give them further cause to doubt your trustworthiness, to abandon you for other options? You're The Wall Street Journal, for God's sake. You're at the pinnacle of the media pyramid. Do you really want to stay there?

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William Powers is a columnist for National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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