This is not your father’s ‘Wall Street Journal’

Daft Punk with Gisele at the 'Wall Street Journal' event. ()
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"It's among the more glamorous events that The Wall Street Journal hosts every year," said Gerard Baker, the paper's managing editor, last Wednesday evening.

He had the attention of several hundred well-dressed guests who were between bites of burrata and butternut squash salads inside The Museum of Modern Art, where WSJ. magazine was hosting its third annual Innovator Awards in conjunction with the November 2013 "Innovators Issue."

It was a glitzy schmooze-fest and marketing bonanza with a guest list that looked like the stuff gossip columns are made of. Baker, a bald and unprepossessing Brit dressed in a dark-blue pinstripe suit, was delivering the opening remarks for the evening's dinner reception, which featured a duo-plate of Arctic char and balsamic braised short-ribs as the main course. Cartier Cuvee champagne and Chateau de Campuget syrah were flowing.

An hour or so earlier, fashion gurus like Thom Browne, Italo Zucchelli and Thakoon Panichgul had been sauntering down the step-and-repeat (sponsored by Cartier, Citi and Olympus) in MOMA's cavernous lobby. Gisele Bundchen nearly incited a paparazzi riot when she arrived a little after 8 p.m. in a sparkling blue Atelier Versace cocktail dress. As the Brazilian beauty shifted through the dense crowd to greet an orange-skinned Valentino Garavani, the seas parted and the iPhone cameras came out en masse.

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But the moment that really drove it home for some of the grizzled Journal veterans in the audience was when Bundchen emerged onstage with a member of Daft Punk on each arm.

"If you had told me 10 years ago that I'd be at a Wall Street Journal party with Gisele Bundchen and Daft Punk, and that that would be an essential part of our journalism," said deputy managing editor for features Mike Miller during a phone interview the next day, "I would have laughed."

No one's laughing now, at least not on the sixth floor of 1211 Avenue of the Americas, where the Journal has been in the throes of transformation since being acquired by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. for a staggering $60 a share.

When the venerable broadsheet was brought into Murdoch's stable in 2007, many wondered whether it was the end of the Journal as we knew it. Surely the infamous media mogul—proprietor of lurid tabloids from Midtown to Wapping to New South Wales—would turn his newest toy into a loudspeaker for his own free-market interests and destroy its unimpeachable credentials as the financial paper of record (and its totemic value to American intellectual and business elites), skeptics said.

Over the past six years, however, the Journal's renovation, much of it overseen by long-time Murdoch deputy Robert Thomson, who is now News Corp's C.E.O., has met with surprisingly little controversy.

While its course still steers right as far as the opinion pages are concerned, the editorial integrity of the news report has remained intact. The most significant changes (masthead moves aside) have made the stories shorter, the prose more concise and, above all, the content broader and more appealing to a consumer base that reaches beyond the Journal's core readership of Wall Street traders and money wonks.

The paper has managed this without much of a stoop, courting its general-interest audience by adding more coverage of national and foreign affairs outside the scope of finance, and giving these stories Page One real estate. There's even a New York metro section that launched in 2010 as a reflection of Murdoch's ambition to bloody The New York Times in its own backyard.

But nowhere has the shift been more pronounced than in the metastasizing portfolio of luxury, leisure and lifestyle content that Journal executives might describe as more infectious than a Daft Punk summer jam.

The enigmatic French dance duo's cameo at the Innovator Awards, where tastemakers like David Chang, Pharrell Williams and Terry Richardson were also in attendance, was more or less the apotheosis of the Journal's newfound sex appeal.

And yet you don't need a gala invite to get a sense of the sea change.

Comedian Aziz Anzari caught wind of it in a waiting room recently.

"I saw The Wall Street Journal and I was like, you know what, I'm gonna pick up The Wall Street Journal and read it," he told Conan O'Brian on his Nov. 6 show. "And I'm reading this article about how a new trend in fashion is thicker eyebrows. And the first sentence is like, 'The new trend in fashion isn't raising eyebrows, it's thickening them.' And I was like, what is this?!" (Punchline: Anzari said that the eyebrows in the accompanying "Can you guess this celebrity's eyebrows?" photo turned out to be his.)

Mustache trends are also au courant at The Journal. "you're so wacky, WSJ," Columbia Journalism Review writer Ryan Chittum tweeted in response to the following call for submissions this week from the Journal's official Twitter account: "Growing a mustache for #Movember? Share your photo w/ #WSJmustache."

At the old Journal, a reporter's pitch about the resurgence of bright, glitzy brass in furniture and home decor might have scored a 300-word squib geared at furniture-industry professionals and spiked with a quote from a relevant trade industry representative.

At the new Journal,  just such a story takes over the entire front of the Oct. 12 installment of Off Duty, the weekly lifestyle section launched by the Journal in 2010 as part of the paper's features-friendly weekend revamp.

The article, by David A. Keeps, bounces lustily from the pop-cultural free associations of one designer to the next, all of them sick of the cold efficiency of stainless steel and chrome and seeking "cocky, outsider glamor." There's not a single Association President in sight. The story was even singled out for praise on Twitter in precincts not always predisposed to heaping compliments on such trend pieces.

There's plenty of content for the ladies, too. The Personal Journal section, which first got the ball rolling back in 2002 before the Journal was even a glimmer in Murdoch's eye, has been giving Glamour and Cosmo a run for their money lately. One recent cover story? "The Real Dirt on Face Washing." There's also a feminine touch to Off Duty, which explored "Fall's cream cavalcade" in a front-page fashion feature from the Nov. 2 edition. Thinking about Botox? WSJ Live has your back with this segment a couple weeks ago on "Five Things Plastic Surgeons Won't Tell You."

"We have been very explicit about wanting to reach more women readers," said Miller, who oversees all of the Journal's features content as well as WSJ. magazine, a glossy style supplement created in 2008 that competes with T magazine for luxury advertisers. (Luxury shoppers, meanwhile, can now head over to The Shops at WSJ., an e-commerce site that launched last week but does not have an editorial component.)

For "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" fans there's Mansion, an uber-high-end real-estate-porn section that celebrated its one-year anniversary last month. For culturephiles, there's Arena, focusing on "arts, culture and entertainment, showcasing the Journal's expanded coverage of these areas," according to a press release that announced the renamed Friday section last October.

Such coverage has been expanding digitally, too, including Pia Catton and Marshall Heyman's "Highbrow Lowbrow" podcast, an arts-focused online version of sports talk-radio. "WSJ Cafe," a newish private-concert-series-cum-web broadcast, has so far featured musicians including Adele, Sinead O'Connor and Keith Urban.

"We're playin' in The Wall Street Journal right now baby," the New Zealand-born country singer riffed between numbers during his September performance, following it up with a headscratcher about how a band can play in a newspaper.

As fluffy as some of this content may seem, there's serious journalistic firepower behind it. Miller has been with the Journal since 1983, when he began his ascent from intern to reporter to editor. Emily Nelson, who edits Personal Journal, is a former business reporter and London bureau chief whom one source described as an "all-around badass. [That's] a lot of weight to throw behind a personal section."

To some, the effort is wasted. "My critique of this stuff," said Dean Starkman, a Journal alumnus who now writes about the financial press for CJR, "is that I see it as change, but I don't necessarily see it as innovation. That's been my biggest critique of the paper, which seems to be on a relentless quest to be as much like everyone else as possible, whereas before it was the most distinctive brand in journalism bar none."

But others say there is an important difference between what the Journal is up to and what everyone else does to provide material that tony brands want to advertise against. Awl co-founder Choire Sicha was one of the cool kids sounding off about the "Brass is Back" story on Twitter, starting a lengthy discussion about the trend. Later we asked him what was so special about the article.

"This piece was tight in a way that a Styles or even Home story at the Times, no matter how thrilling, almost never is," he said. He noted that no fewer than 13 new products in brass were mentioned in the story, ranging from the accessible (Crate and Barrel) to the rarefied. And that the author is speaking next week at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on the subject of design. That is: not written by a recent college grad from a pile of press releases.

Miller thinks hardened newsroom grumps are softening to the effort.

"The thing is," he said, "those skeptics go to their family gatherings now, and people around the dinner table say, 'I just cooked this incredible kale salad and manicotti from Off Duty!'"

Romy Newman, a Journal advertising executive, would not say how much money this type of content was making for the franchise or what percentage of revenues it now comprises. But she pointed out that WSJ. magazine alone has brought in more than 200 new advertisers. A Journal spokesperson cited Mansion as another example of growth, saying the section has added 52 new advertisers since its launch a year ago.

"What we've delivered so far has been very successful," said Newman.

Ken Doctor, a media analyst, said the expansion of luxury, leisure and other soft content and its affiliated digital and marketing adjacencies has "helped offset the general advertising decline, but it hasn't offset it enough." On an earnings call this week about News Corp's first-quarter financial results, the company's chief financial officer said ad revenues at the Journal were roughly flat. "They're still not growing," said Doctor. "But we could make the case that if they hadn't made some of these changes, they might be several points down in advertising rather than flat."

On that same earnings call, executives touted growth in mobile. Not surprisingly, Newman and Miller said mobile is precisely the area where the Journal's ongoing features expansion is now focusing. But they were coy when pressed for details.

"We're always talking internally about what we would like to do next," said Miller. "I have a Post-it note on my desk with some ideas I'm excited about. But they're still in the Post-it note stage."

 

Capital New York is launching a subscription news service in early 2014. For more information and to get complimentary access, please contact Lauren Englander at lenglander@capitalnewyork.com.