Learning new tricks from old media


Whether measured by profits, prizes or paid circulation, the Wall Street Journal ranks as one of the world’s most successful media brands. It recently underwent a top-to-bottom redesign and, as one would expect of an institution of its self-importance, its editors ran an eight-page special section to explain the paper’s new look to its 2.7 million worldwide subscribers. You can see what they said in a PDF copy of the print edition that they posted online. Most visibly, the folded paper now reads six inches narrower than before (if the editors said they did this “to save money” they did so only in passing, instead emphasizing their rededication to delivering exclusive news and foward-looking analysis).

Why read the Journal’s explanation? For more than a century it has been a phenomenally successful “niche” publication. Long before the Web — starting right around the time of the telephone — it created a community of interest, starting with Wall Street investors; growing to embrace the pre-World War II Main Street business community; making the corporate leap in the post-WWII era and now becoming one of a handful of transnational media brands.

So when folks with that kind of clout spend a bazillion bucks retooling their product to evolve with the future, common sense dicatates you see what crumbs of information they may served up alongside their guesses, breast-beating and rationalizations.

I read the paper version of what the Journal editors called their “Readers’ Guide” and found it chock full of trivia, such as the fact that it opened a West Coast printing plant “only days before the (Wall Street) crash of 1929.” So obviously its leaders are not clairvoyant.

And if one were to judge the paper solely on looks, it would seem gray and lifeless alongside the flashy icons of modern design (Wired Magazine comes to mind). But consider that its front page “What’s News” summaries debuted in 1934 — long before Web publications came along to serve up short teases of information, which satisfy most of our curiosity.

But as the Journal’s editors say several times, they believe that their readers come to read, not to merely browse. Have attention spans changed; does the audience today merely surf from hither to yon in seach of stimulation? perhaps in part, but the lesson I take here is that if a site DOESN’T attract real readership and serve some important need(s) that it is unlikely to remain “hot” for a century based on the fact that it is currently deemed “cool.”)

That does not mean bury the visitor in words, and indeed despite their blustery pronouncements about how the Journal and its readers are different, in essence the message of the redesign seems to have been that less is more: pack the gist of the story into a graphic (summary boxes) so that even the browser can catch the details; write each story with the understanding that almost nothing (except a leaked exclusive) is going to come as a revelation to the visitor. Extra, extra, read all about it is toast. Stick a fork in it. What does this mean is the question du jour.

In one telling piece, “The Relevance of Good Design,” written by the Journal’s chief designer, Mario R. Garcia, I see the solid clue that the Journal intends to hang onto the central tenet of newspaper journalism: the notion that the professional, not the amateur (ala Digg) remains the authority on what is or isn’t news. In articulating the eight principles that guided the redesign, Garcia wrote that his number two criteria (one was make it easy to navigate) was to:

“Create a hierarchy of stories so the readers know the relative importance of news . . . to help them prioritize their reading.”

That could provoke a debate. It may be so “last century.” But then we’ll have to come back in a hundred years or so to see if the Farks of this world are still commanding attention.