By: Mark Fitzgerald
After months of hype, including two straight weeks of running a front-page skybox just to advertise its imminence, the first Saturday edition of The Wall Street Journal since 1953 has arrived, and, remarkably, its own description of itself may be the best one.
“The content of Weekend Edition is, at once, familiar and refreshing,” Publisher Karen Elliott House writes in a letter to readers.
There’s the usual big dose of business news, including a nicely done piece on deposed press magnate Conrad Black’s probable legal strategy. (In a nutshell: Lord Black of Crossharbour had no idea his bank account was being fattened by the nefarious deeds of his former buddy F. David Radler.) But the Weekend Edition also takes a more graphical approach to some A-section news, notably a new “Hot Topics” chart that looked at what kind of chief justice John Roberts might make.
The new “Pursuits” feature section is the farthest design departure yet the Journal has made from the format that’s basically ruled since 1889. This is indeed a different Wall Street Journal. There are recipes, for one thing, including one that amounts to a shameful waste of good rum for making a ghastly concoction called a peach mojito. There’s a gardening page and several features on stuff that could have been ripped out of a Sharper Image catalog.
Of course, since the publisher’s letter appears on the Opinion page, it quickly veers into the kind of arrogant overstatement that makes Journal editorials as infuriating as they are entertaining. “You no longer need to wait until Monday,” House adds, “or turn to less authoritative sources, for coverage of the Friday business day.”
One of those supposedly less authoritative sources the Journal publisher no doubt has in mind is the Financial Times, which has been publishing a Saturday paper since it was established in London in 1888, a year before the Journal.
So how does the new Saturday Journal stack up against the FT, which has been publishing in the U.S. since 1997?
The first thing you notice is how similar the front pages are. Both have skyboxes full of teasers: three in the Journal’s, four in the FT’s. Below the flag is a big color photo, flanked by columns of hard news.
Both front pages follow their Monday through Friday content habits. The Journal’s news is more feature-y, including the interesting story of a Colorado ski bum who ended up being a kind of one-man Salvation Army for a tiny Sri Lanka fishing village devastated by last December’s tsunami. (The story jumps to a full page and then to another third of a page.) As with its weekdays, the FT leans to hard, and international, news, with a lead piece on the difficulties the British company LogicCMG faces in its takeover bid for the French company Unilog.
Ironically, both have, in effect, a house ad on the front page. The FT’s is a straight-on solicitation of advertisers, while the Journal features a “Welcome to the Journal’s Weekend Edition” box explaining the Saturday content.
The Journal retains its usual second “Money & Investing” section with market listings, but with an emphasis on personal finance. On the back page, there’s a new column of sharp-tongued commentary on business that will remind FT readers of “Lex,” the famous column of sharp-tongued commentary on business that appears on the back page of its A-section.
If the first two sections of the Saturday Journal are, at their most informal, attired in business casual, the third section, “Pursuits,” is where the paper finally dresses for the weekend. The graphics are bold. There’s a lot of lists, such as the best five books about fashion and Wynton Marsalis’ five favorite jazz recordings. Even here, though, the Journal is not afraid to run long. Its “cover story” on about-to-open restaurants around the nation runs to two pages of dense type.
FT Weekend, the Financial Times’ more feature-y second section, also has recipes and, being English, a full page on gardening. In design, it is considerably more buttoned down than the Journal, and there’s a noticeably more serious tone. One piece that’s apparently intended to be a light feature goes on and on about the supposed controversy over semicolons.
On the other hand, the FT makes room for crossword, chess, and bridge puzzles, and this weekend’s editorial cartoon is a hoot: Taking off from President Bush’s infamous “bathroom break” note, the cartoon, titled “Bush’s desperate memo,” shows his hand writing a note on paper that sits on top of news clippings reading “$200 billion Reconstruction After Hurricane Katrina,” “Oil Prices Rocket,” “Iraq: 160 Die in Suicide Bomb Attack,” “U.S. Debt.”
“I think I may need a miracle?” the note reads. “Is this possible?”
In content, the two papers are basically a tie on Saturday. The FT is the meatier of the two, best suited for storing up some sobering facts about the U.S. current account that you can spring on the host of a Saturday night dinner party. The Journal is a little less serious, although the editorial pages remain as prickly as any Monday morning. (Check out the interview with U.N. Ambassador John Bolton that seems to fret that the famous meanie isn’t enough of a S.O.B. to make United Nations reform stick.)
In advertising, though, the much thicker Journal — which outsells the U.S. FT edition 2,070,000 to 128,000 on an average weekday — is the clear winner on Saturday.
But the whole idea of Journals weekend edition is to expand its ad base, which has been badly battered by the prolonged slump in technology and financial advertising.
There’s a little bit of evidence the strategy may pay off. There’s a an ad for washing machines from the Home Depot, for instance, that’s unlikely to be seen during the week, and a substantial ad for J.R. Moehringer’s book, “The Tender Bar.”
But most of the ads in the “Pursuits” section could just as easily show up in Monday’s A-section. There are page after page of ads for banks, hotels, airlines, prescription drugs, even one for DHL.
“This weekend, most people will kick back, put their feet up and relax,” the ad for the delivery service reads. “We’re not like most people.”
But now the Journal is like most newspapers, trying to get into homes on weekends. Maybe that innovation is not all that new: After all, as Publisher House noted a few months in advance of the weekend edition launch, at the Journal, the stars are already working six days a week.
Ed’s Note: This article originally referred incorrectly to the Saturday edition as the first in its 116-year history. In fact, the Journal published a Saturday edition in the past but discontinued it in 1953, a year after the New York Stock Exchange ended Saturday trading.