The Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition: Expectations, Surprises, Disappointments
Page One looked unlike anything I'd seen in The Wall Street Journal before.
Skybox teases stretched across the top.
A burnt-orange background popped from the middle of the flag.
And a three-column photo dominated the page, capped with a headline that didn't sound very Wall Street: "Dropping Everything."
In the days leading up to its new Weekend Edition, The Journal had promised (across the top of Page One) that "Weekends will never be the same."
Alas, most accounts of what transpired in the world on September 17 and 18, 2005 suggested a weekend not so different than many before it.
And as I turned the page, The Journal that landed in my driveway on Saturday ended up looking more alike than different from the paper that shows up in homes and offices around the country Monday through Friday.
Given expectations, it's not surprising that many of the early reviews of Weekend Edition have echoed the headline above David Lidsky's entry on the Fast Company blog: "Weekend (Yawwwn) Journal (Yawwwn) Debuts, Disappoints."
But there's a more interesting story unfolding here, one that involves more than the look and feel of an over-hyped new edition.
It's partly about wooing new readers without alienating the old, and partly about the difference between tweaking and innovating.
Perhaps most importantly, the launch of Weekend Edition summons the rare skill of inserting something so irresistibly into the life of a customer that it sticks.
For the sake of discussion (please chime in with your views here), below is what my Poynter colleague Chip Scanlan might describe as "a movie" of my experience so far with Weekend Edition.
It began the Tuesday before, with my call to the Dow Jones 800 number in search of an introductory deal.
"We're not offering a separate subscription for the Saturday paper at this time," the rep told me. She pitched what I believe was a 13-week subscription to the six-day paper -– an offer that invited me to cancel without paying anything after three weeks.
The rep said my first paper would arrive Thursday morning.
I called the circulation number. The rep assured me it would begin on Friday morning.
I called again. The rep assured me it would begin on Saturday morning.
And it did.
So at least at the outset, I got what I wanted: a Saturday-only paper.
As different as the paper looked out front, it was that two-word headline –- "Dropping Everything" -– that grabbed me.
Perched atop an engaging piece about a chef abandoning his routine for tsunami relief, the headline also captured (for me) the Journal's opportunities and risks as it veered off its familiar turf into the weekend.
“Weekend Edition is aimed at serving our existing readers – affluent, intelligent people – who have indicated a need for authoritative coverage of Friday’s business news, as well as coverage that allows them to make better decisions about how to spend their personal time and money." -- Dow Jones Just what would the paper be willing to drop, I wondered, in the course of making room for the new?
Not much, it turned out, a strategy that's disappointing for those of us -– perhaps journalists, especially -- looking for something more radically fresh, but probably comforting for many loyal readers.
As Dow Jones points out in a media kit, "Weekend Edition is aimed at serving our existing readers -– affluent, intelligent people –- who have indicated a need for authoritative coverage of Friday's business news, as well as coverage that allows them to make better decisions about how to spend their personal time and money.
"According to our most recent Wall Street Journal subscriber/reader profile, 60 percent are in top management; average individual employment income is $191,000; and average household net worth is $2.1 million."
Hardly surprising, then, that my name is not among the 1,242,861 U.S. home delivery and mail subscribers listed in the paper's statement to the Audit Bureau of Circulation.
On the day Weekend Edition showed up at my house, though, I did exceed at least one of the Journal's basic demographics: time spent with the paper.
Dow Jones research shows readers spend an average of 54 minutes a day with the paper. I invested nearly an hour and a half.
Here's what I found once I moved past Page One.
Despite the intriguing head on the centerpiece, it wasn't enough to get me to turn immediately, as requested, to Page A11, Column 1.
Instead I went to the two-column "Welcome to The Journal's Weekend Edition" at the bottom right. A reference to the paper's new Hot Topic feature provoked me to check out the half-page spread headlined "What Kind of Chief Justice Would Roberts Be?"
Initially, I skipped over the 518-word summary and went to the four columns of facts, briefs, charts and bulleted items that, while failing to deliver fully on the headline, answered a bunch of other interesting questions. And got me interested enough to read the short intro by Lauren Etter.
That put me across the page from the jump of the two main front page stories -– "Dropping Everything" and a piece on FAO Schwarz seeking "the next big thing" from toy inventors. I went back to the front to start the toy story, returned to the break and finished the story with only one serious unmet need: some photos or diagrams of some of these inventions.
That got me moving backwards through the A-section, stopping first on A2 at a list of the five most viewed WSJ articles for the previous week. Strangely, the list included no clue to finding the stories online.
A tweak I liked: a lead editorial addressing the same issue covered in the new Hot Topic feature elsewhere in the section.Before leaving the A-section, I paged all the way through and surprised myself by stopping to read four of the five pieces on the editorial page.
A tweak I liked: a lead editorial addressing the same issue covered in the new Hot Topic feature elsewhere in the section. I also liked the idea of a bylined editorial (Jason L. Riley) but couldn't tell whether Riley had authored the editorial about Judge Roberts on top or the one about Mayor Bloomberg on the bottom.
I came away from The Weekend Interview with U.N. ambassador John Bolton wondering why it wasn't presented as a straight Q&A unencumbered by superfluous, anonymous quotes from "a U.S. diplomatic source" and "a senior Administration official."
Maybe most interesting on the page were 540 words from Michael Barone on "real estate moms."
Still, as the most interactive pages in the paper, the editorial and op-ed pages seemed to be missing a huge opportunity to enlist the ideas and feedback of all those "affluent and intelligent people" among its readers.
I admit to not spending much time with the dimension of Weekend Edition most critical to its survival: the advertising. I did notice the two-column ad at the top left corner of page A4, a pitch so gray and text-heavy that it might have appeared, in pretty much the same form, half a century ago.
Well, almost half a century. I sent an e-mail to the advertiser, a Colorado resort owner named Lloyd Lane, who responded promptly and said he was "pleasantly surprised by the response" to the ad and noted that he'd been advertising in the Journal for 48 years. His note: Letter from Lloyd Lane
Perhaps least surprising about Weekend Journal was the section touted as the biggest break with the past: Pursuits, 28 pages focused on "the business of life."
There was plenty to like: A "Hit List" of Wynton Marsalis' five favorite classic jazz recordings; a "First Look" at three new TV shows, one of which provoked an update of my scheduled DVR recordings; a nicely-formatted round up of books about Iraq by soldiers back from the front; even an essay about the peculiar phenomenon of football at my alma mater.
What I was hoping for and mostly didn’t find in Weekend Edition were some new forms of journalism, even some new ways of thinking about Saturday and Sunday in the context of all those workdays.Among the criticisms of Weekend Edition is the allegation of story selection by focus group. As a focus group of one, I wasn't bothered by the smorgasbord of gardening, travel, fashion, family, movies and more.
What I was hoping for and mostly didn't find in Weekend Edition were some new forms of journalism, even some new ways of thinking about Saturday and Sunday in the context of all those workdays.
I did stumble across some journalistic innovation before the weekend was over, but in a different paper. If you still have the Sept. 18 edition of The New York Times around, check out the section of the Times Magazine called The Funny Papers. (You'll find its online version here.)
Combining comic art, a personal essay and serial fiction (first up: Elmore Leonard), Funny Papers is a strange and intriguing mix. Too soon to tell how well it will work, but clearly some new (or resurrected) forms of journalism. And some new ways of engaging readers on a weekend.
The Journal's reluctance to get too wild and crazy is understandable, of course.
Gene Roberts, the former executive editor of Philadelphia Inquirer and former managing editor of The New York Times, argues that the most effective re-design of a newspaper is one done so gradually and so subtly -- perhaps so tweakishly -- that the reader barely notices the changes.
As The Journal has timed changes in the Monday-Friday papers to the introduction of Weekend Edition, perhaps it sees the Saturday paper as much as a re-design as a new product?
Innovation and bold moves do have their risks. Just look at the mess The Guardian created for itself last week when it removed a comic strip from its re-designed paper.
Give the folks at The Guardian this much, though: They figured out how to put transparency and reader involvement to work in the course of re-invention. Lessons there for The Journal in figuring out how to make Weekend Edition stick?