The Wall Street Journal is, financially speaking, quietly one of the most successful newspapers in the country. But you don’t hear about the Journal’s success all that often. The media industry narrative has centered around the revitalization of The New York Times and The Washington Post, two papers that had previously struggled to adapt to the digital era, before roaring back. They are now the two most important newspapers in the country (at least until Substack cannibalizes them).
The Journal is rarely included in that narrative, in part because its road has been less rocky. Although it does not drive the news the way the Times and the Post do, the Journal remains the most influential business-focused publication in the country and is certainly no slouch when it comes to other areas of coverage. Unlike its competitors, it transitioned to a digital subscription model earlier and more seamlessly. According to a juicy report from the Times’ Edmund Lee, the Journal boasts 2.46 million digital-only subscriptions and is still growing, adding over 100,000 in the final quarter of 2020.
Acquired by Rupert Murdoch in 2007, the Journal has done all this without really losing much of its identity. It is august, often dull, and aggressively curated for a specific consumer: old, rich, white, male. Newspaper and magazine subscribers tend to be old, of course, but the Journal’s are especially aged. “The No. 1 reason we lose subscribers is they die,” editors at the paper joke, according to Lee.
Despite its success, the paper is under pressure to change. Last summer, staffers wrote a letter to management asking for “more muscular reporting about race and social inequities” and a clearer distinction between the paper’s news division and its frequently insane, increasingly Trump-y opinion side. An innovation team working at the newspaper is exploring sweeping changes to expand the newspaper’s audience, particularly among women and people of color.
Murdoch’s News Corp, meanwhile, has set aggressive, difficult-to-attain goals for growth. With his news empire in decline, there is more pressure on the Journal to deliver—it has been directed to double its audience and subscription numbers by 2024, a daunting challenge for any publication but particularly one with a subscriber base that is quite literally dying off.
But how much does the Journal really need to change? It already commands a powerful niche in the American media; challenging the Times and Post on their ground would likely be a mistake. Others have tried—most recently the Los Angeles Times—to little avail. It’s simply not clear, given the dominance of those outlets and the tip sheets and websites orbiting them, that there’s room for another titan of American media to elbow its way into the conversation. A serious rebrand, one that moves the paper away from its market-focused wheelhouse, would squander the built-in advantages that have made it such a durable and profitable institution.
However, much of what is being proposed, by both Journal employees and the innovation team, would not do that. The Journal’s coverage is stodgy and, in many respects, outdated. Of 108 front-page stories reviewed by the innovation team, “None had gender as the main topic, and none had LGBTQ-specific issues as the main topic of the story. As far as the protagonist of a story—many of our stories do not have human protagonists. But when they did, we found that 13 percent were people of color.” Matt Murray, the Journal’s top editor, has reportedly objected to the use of the word transphobia, dismissing it as a “jargon-y woke-ism.”
Some have derided the changes being proposed by staffers as the latest surrender to woke culture and political correctness. But you can see how a less-than-diverse array of subjects could be seen as a poor business decision artificially limiting the Journal’s potential audience, as well as bad journalism. And a skepticism of young people and their interests more broadly could also lead other outlets—not just the Times but also Bloomberg and The Verge—eating the paper’s lunch on new developments in finance and technology.
Still, it’s not clear the Journal can win over that audience without alienating the subscribers it already has, old and white and rich as they may be. Rather than reorient the Journal’s core areas of coverage to compete with the Times and the Post, it should really do something about its editorial section.
The Journal’s Opinion page is a huge inhibitor, not only in terms of growing the paper’s audience but in recruiting young, talented journalists. In the final weeks of the presidential election, to name just one telling example, one of its most prominent writers, Kimberly Strassel, used her perch to try to launder the Hunter Biden Ukraine story. She was shot down by the paper’s reporters, who accurately surmised there was no substance to allegations of Biden’s involvement in a wild pay-for-play scheme.
The paper’s news staff is well aware of the reputational problem the Opinion side presents. “Opinion’s lack of fact-checking and transparency, and its apparent disregard for evidence, undermine our readers’ trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources,” they wrote in a letter to the paper’s owner and publisher. “Many readers already cannot tell the difference between reporting and Opinion. And from those who know of the divide, reporters nonetheless face questions about the Journal’s accuracy and fairness because of errors published in Opinion.” A less deranged, more diverse Opinion side would aid the paper’s robust reporting—and have the added benefit of not being a world-historical embarrassment.
The bigger problem is with News Corp itself. The Journal remains successful and, with some tweaks, could augment its elderly audience with younger finance-focused subscribers. But News Corp has been hit hard by the economic changes that have rattled the industry, and its demands that the Journal double its audience risk killing the golden goose. Such demands can lead to an array of foolish decisions that hurt a successful outlet. In the post-Trump world, it is a very tall ask indeed.