At The Journal, Identity Crisis Inside Page One

When The Wall Street Journal unveiled its redesign last April, executives from the paper’s parent company, Dow Jones, treated the moment with the blustery fanfare of a Krispy Kreme grand opening. On street corners all over Manhattan, vendors shoved free copies into people’s arms. Mannequins gripped The Journal in the windows at Saks. The paper’s managing editor, Paul Steiger, did a Ben Affleck–like tour of TV appearances to tout the new features.

Though some of The Journal ‘s excitement related to its service-driven, lifestyle-oriented “Personal Journal” section, it was the startling additions of color, new typefaces and layouts on page 1- The Journal ‘s staid, highly recognizable face, barely changed since World War II-that truly signaled a new day for the paper.

Since the spring relaunch, however, business has not gone smoothly for either The Journal or Dow Jones. Dow Jones recently instituted another round of layoffs of over 300 employees. In its most recent earnings report, the company announced an 47 percent decline in profits from fourth quarter 2001. According to a report in the New York Post , Dow Jones chief executive Peter Kann faced a torrent of angry comments during a town-hall meeting with 500 employees in December.

Now this ill will has extended to The Journal ‘s retooled page 1. Ten months after the relaunch, there remains much skepticism within the paper’s newsroom about the new format. There is concern that page 1′s new emphasis on the national breaking-news grind has made The Journal read too much like other daily publications and diluted the paper’s franchise of investigative, behind-the-scenes business writing. There is also worry that changes in the management of page 1 has diminished the page’s fabled autonomy-and its quality.

One Journal newsroom staffer deemed the current state of page 1 a “disaster.” “There’s been a lot of soul searching over what page 1′s become,” another staffer said, adding ominously: “What it has become and what it will become has ramifications for the future of the paper.”

Of course, the question of what The Journal should or shouldn’t be covering, and what a page 1 story is, has lingered ever since Barney Kilgore transformed The Journal from a trader’s tip sheet into a stalwart of American journalism over 60 years ago. It’s also true that any change to page 1 was going to be an adjustment for readers as well as Journal staffers. Until last year, digging into The Journal was a simple, time-honored ritual: You read the paper’s front page vertically. The “What’s News” box in columns two and three contained nuggets from the news of the day; the outside columns, or “leaders,” often held longer, more in-depth pieces; while the center column-known as the “A-hed”-was reserved for the light stuff. Column five featured columns written from different Journal desks.

But last year, wanting to compete with the likes of The New York Times and the Financial Times , The Journal redesigned page 1 to accommodate four or five news stories with breaking news. While the column-one “leader” remained in place, the paper introduced news stories that ran over two columns on the right side of the page.

On one hand, it would appear understandable that The Journal ‘s managers might want more breaking news on page 1; nearly every newspaper editor demands the same. But this prioritizing of news, Journal sources said, has impacted the paper’s core asset of expansive, investigative storytelling-the kinds of stories that may have been “off the news,” but won The Journal both readers and Pulitzers.

“There were things page 1 stories had to have-stories that took you inside the room when the deal was made, when the merger was decided. You got to see all that,” one Journal staffer said. “That’s missing now.”

Said another Journal staffer of page 1: “Most people [here] think it’s strayed too far from what its mission was. They’ve diluted the product.”

Angelo Henderson, who became The Journal ‘s only African-American Pulitzer Prize winner as a writer for page 1 before he left for The Detroit News in December 2001, agreed that the changes were stark.

“It’s definitely newsier,” Mr. Henderson said. “But it’s more predictable. The goal of page 1 was always to surprise, to shock, to challenge a normal reader with topics you wouldn’t read in any other papers that day.”

In an interview with Off the Record, Mr. Steiger defended the paper’s page 1 overhaul and said that any shift away from The Journal ‘s traditional types of stories was merely “cyclical.” He added that the reformatted front page had gotten “favorable” reviews in reader surveys.

“For much of 2002, the flow of the news has been right on our turf: the economy, the markets,” Mr. Steiger said. “When that happens, you’re going after stories that have a shorter time span. You’re breaking more news on the page, rather than doing as many of the long-project features that have always been a part of the page.

“I would acknowledge that there were fewer of those in the last year, but that’s because you had people like Charlie Gasparino blasting holes in stories about Wall Street,” Mr. Steiger said, referring to Mr. Gasparino’s coverage of the Martha Stewart trading scandal and Citigroup chief executive Sandy Weill, among others. “Story after story after story, The Wall Street Journal led the way. If you put it on page 1, that leaves less room for the more offbeat pieces.

“I’ve been through these cycles before, and they go up and down depending on news flows, and depending on what the reporters are finding,” Mr. Steiger said. “I would not be surprised to see, this year, the balance shift a bit-but you never can tell where the news goes. One of the great things about what we do is that news is something you can’t often expect.”

Some Journal staffers, however, scoff at that explanation, saying that Mr. Steiger’s management decisions are more responsible for the page 1 changes than any shift in the news cycle. For much of the job’s life, the page 1 editor acted largely as a feudal lord within the paper’s kingdom. Reporting only to the managing editor, page 1 editors like Jim Stewart and John Brecher had, for all intents and purposes, complete control.

That is no longer the case, Journal staffers said. After “Marketplace” editor Mike Miller was promoted to page 1 editor in April 2000-two years before the relaunch and redesign-Mr. Steiger put him under the supervision of deputy managing editor Dan Hertzberg, who Journal staffers said is a breaking-news devotee who in the past clashed over the subject with Mr. Brecher. In addition to the constant oversight by Mr. Hertzberg, heavy supervision of Mr. Miller himself, staffers said, has led to “micromanaging.”

“Page 1 editors used to be co-creators,” one Journal staffer said. “Now, they’re glorified copy editors.”

Mr. Stewart, Mr. Brecher and Mr. Hertzberg didn’t return phone calls seeking comment. Mr. Miller likewise didn’t respond to requests seeking comment.

For his part, Mr. Steiger said the now almost three-year-old system of Mr. Miller reporting to Mr. Hertzberg has “worked great.”

“The reason why Mike reports to Dan Hertzberg is because I’ve delegated much of the running of the U.S. Wall Street Journal to Dan Hertzberg,” Mr. Steiger said. “It’s appropriate that the page 1 editor report to him as well as the news side. I think Mike is a superb page 1 editor in the tradition of great Wall Street Journal page 1 editors. He followed a great editor who followed another great editor, and he has tremendous writing talent himself. He has a sense of how to deal with powerful news as well as the sense of how to identify and call forth a brilliant feature story.”

As for the wounded morale of some page 1 staff, Mr. Steiger said: “You can always find frustrations on page 1, because page 1 of The Wall Street Journal is the prime real estate of American journalism. We’ve got a huge audience, and there are only four stories a day out there-occasionally a fifth. And when you have a tremendous flow of exclusive, powerful stories that are close to the news, there’s more time pressure to get those stories into the paper quickly. So that can produce one level of frustration. But at other times, when the news pressures aren’t so powerful, you can have backlogs build up, so the reporters get frustrated.”

In his brief tenure as the editor in chief of Stuff , Greg Gutfeld has tried to start more fights than Larry McMurtry’s roughnecks in Thalia, Tex. In the monthly cartoon accompanying his editor’s note, Mr. Gutfeld has mocked the very real-life antics of Playboy ‘s Hugh Hefner, GQ ‘s Art Cooper and Hunter S. Thompson. When he lampooned Esquire writer Tom Junod’s eulogy to his dog, Mr. Junod threatened to beat his ass.

What can we say? The boy can’t help himself.

Recently, Off the Record called Mr. Gutfeld to discuss a book proposal he sent to publishers the week of Jan. 26 entitled Ladworld: An Introduction to Anti-Journalism . After talking about the book, Mr. Gutfeld took time to single out Mr. Cooper’s screed on a potential war with Iraq during his Jan. 29 induction speech into the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame.

“That thing about Art Cooper coming out against Iraq and people calling him ‘daring,’ that’s just bullshit,” said Mr. Gutfeld, who was not present during the speech. “That’s just an example of how idiotic journalists can be. I was going to buy him a ticket to Baghdad, but I’m too cheap.

“If he were to come out in favor of war in front all those left-wing editors, that would have shown real balls,” Mr. Gutfeld continued.

Asked for comment, Mr. Cooper-whose own magazine is reportedly working on a prototype for a younger men’s magazine entitled Fahrenheit -said: “I was urging open access and not press briefings. I don’t think there’s going to be a war. I’m in the minority there, but if there is one, I want to cover it. We have sent people into the hot spots before, and I really don’t want to send them again. But if they do go back, I want to be able to cover it.

Mr. Cooper added that he felt the audience was “hardly left-wing,” evidenced by the fact that his comments received only scant applause.

“This is coming from a guy that didn’t listen to my speech and didn’t hear what I was saying about war,” Mr. Cooper said. “That is something that is completely alien to that publication. I mean, he doesn’t have to think about what’s going on in the world, and I’m sure he doesn’t. But it’s something that every working, thinking journalist has to think about. I just think this guy shouldn’t criticize real magazines when he edits-however you want to define whatever junky little thing he does.”

In the past year, the New York Post ‘s franchise-business section has fired media writer Dan Cox and business and markets writer Jessica Sommar. On Thursday, Feb. 6, fashion-business writer Lisa Marsh will officially leave the Post to complete her book House of Klein: America’s Last Great Designer .

“I need time to devote to the book,” Ms. Marsh said of her decision to quit, “and I can’t do both at the same time.

“If a job opens up somewhere, I’d come back,” Ms. Marsh added. “But I’m assuming they’re going to fill the position as soon as they can.”