Sticking to the Pan

Leisure coverage may not be weighty stuff, but it could be the golden egg that saves newspapers.

Last week I was reading a wonderfully vicious review of Lady in the Water by Wall Street Journal movie critic Joe Morgenstern, who is at his best when he's really ticked off. As I luxuriated in the venom ("this cloying piece of claptrap sets a high-water mark for pomposity, condescension, false profundity, and true turgidity"), I found myself wondering if he ever regrets his slams.

I've done a fair number of those myself. In fact, last year I wrote a pretty savage column about Morgenstern's paper. The Journal had just unveiled its new Weekend Edition and, deeply underwhelmed, I panned it as a "disaster," "flat," "a scary cyborg," "baggy and unfocused," and "horribly wrong," not to mention "one of the most spectacular belly flops in modern media history."

OK, so I got a little worked up. There aren't many great newspapers left, and when one of them starts messing with the product, I take it personally. I'm old enough to remember a time when getting angry with the newspaper was an act of love.

Ten months have passed and the Weekend Edition has been landing in my driveway every Saturday morning.

I have to admit, sometimes a whispery little voice in my head teases: Come on, is it really as awful as you said?

I've thought about it and the answer is no—and yes.

No, in that the Saturday Journal is not truly scary or disastrous. It's still The Wall Street Journal, after all, and most of the product is indistinguishable from what the paper offers up on weekdays—top-flight journalism, terrifically reported and edited.

Last Saturday's front page brought four meaty pieces, including a story about how the Mideast war is dividing Jews and Arabs in Detroit. Inside, the Hot Topic section covered the stem-cell veto, with a fine primer for anyone who hasn't followed that story in detail. The Money & Investing section was solid and smart, as usual.

The big problem, and the reason I can't take back all the bile I spewed last year, is the section that is really the centerpiece of the Weekend Edition, the lifestyle/leisure package called Pursuits.

Leisure may not be weighty stuff, but with all those Baby Boomers heading toward retirement, it could be the golden egg that saves newspapers. Getting it right is crucial.

As every Journal fan knows, the paper has been offering lively coverage of food, travel, fashion, wine, and other relatively indulgent topics for years, in its Friday Weekend Journal, a masterpiece of newspaper design. Instead of doing the easy, logical thing and creating an exact clone of Weekend Journal for Saturday—a move that I'm certain would have delighted readers—the paper opted to reinvent the wheel.

It's hard to say exactly why Pursuits doesn't work, but there appears to be a basic misunderstanding of how people think about their weekends. In layout and substance, the big Saturday stories have a more in-depth feeling than those in the Friday section. Thus, last Saturday there was a long lead story about "The Most Inventive Towns in America," and beneath that a hefty travel piece about "beer tourism" in Central Europe.

Both stories were well done. But the funny thing is, reading about such topics is a lot more diverting in short form and on a weekday, because it feels like you're playing hooky. When it's Saturday morning and you've got free hours stretching ahead of you, do you really want to dive into an ambitious piece about tourism in Russia, or a look at gourmet restaurant trends in Las Vegas? Unless you're actually in Vegas, that's probably the last thing you want to do.

Most of us don't need a weekly raft of new ideas on how to spend our weekends. To the extent that the people I know read on weekends, they want content that's directly relevant to their lives. That's why some 300,000 readers (including me) pay a considerable price to read another Dow Jones product that arrives on Saturday—the quirky, inimitable, hungrily devoured Barron's.

Maybe it's a small thing, one section of one day's paper. But in today's media environment, where consumers have so many choices, small things can matter hugely. The future of newspapers could be riding on them.