Breaking The Symmetry

The new design of the paper edition of The Wall Street Journal debuted today, January 2, 2007.  (See L. Gordon Crovitz, "Annual Letter from the Publisher: A Report to Our Readers," WSJ, Jan 2, 2007.) The video report of this change including commentary by Crovitz, managing editor Paul E. Steiger and design consultant Mario Garcia can be found here. These changes may save costs and capture greater readership for The Wall Street Journal.

The editors and publishers have written a whole section defending the new design and font on the paper edition.  They note that the new design comes in response to readers' feedback and the realities of online information distribution, including the evolving role of the online edition of the Journal itself. In fact, the Journal has also published a Readers Guide to explain the changes and various venues for getting the content it publishes.

While some readers may find advantages in the information lay-out on the Journal and some of the new services, including the free online Markets Data Center (in lieu of printed market data) and the printing of major economic and financial indexes on top of the front page, the narrower format of the new paper edition of the Journal is a real setback. It breaks the symmetry of the paper, which used to have 6 columns. It now has 5 columns, with an absent left column, and folding the paper in the middle renders one of the columns (the middle column) totally unreadable.

In short, something as mundane as the narrower format used for the new print edition of The Wall Street Journal seems to break the basic rules of using paper as technology.

The Wall Street Journal, despite the controversies and usual biases of its opinion and editorial pages which are to be expected, has published some of the best works American journalism has had to offer.  Some of this work has appeared on the "infamous" left column of the Journal, which will now be harder to find and read than it used to be simply because it is no longer there, on the left, at the top of the front page. While the online Journal has continually improved, the new paper edition seems to have some room for further "evolutionary" improvements.

By contrast, the paper edition of Financial Times (as distributed in the U.S.) continues with the (folding) symmetry of 8 columns in 2007. This symmetry preserves the resizing (i.e. folding) capabilities of the viewing platform the paper edition offers.

In the meantime and somewhat relevant to the Journal's change, Aline van Duyn of Financial Times reports the following surprising fact ("Media groups are grappling with a drift of revenue to the web," FT, Jan 2, 2007):

An analysis by Bain & Company, a consultancy, illustrates the problem. For an average US newspaper, a subscriber generates about $1,000 a year from advertising. For those newspapers that base their internet strategy around being a content destination, each viewer generates an average of $5.50 of advertising revenue. Losing one print subscriber can therefore be hard to recoup in terms of advertising, even as advertising dollars shift online.

Capturing online viewers do not seem to be keeping up with loss of print readers. So many analysts believe that traditional media need to deploy new business models for capturing revenue from online advertising, perhaps by taking a cut from transactions initiated through the online ads. On the other hand, there are ways to improve the number of print readers. Anyone traveling internationally will have noticed the wide availability of free papers for travelers. There are of course other means for improving print readership. Successful traditional media will probably emphasize both modes of reaching their audience.

It is of interest to note that The Wall Street Journal has actually added print subscribers at a rate of 10% last year.

Perhaps, the next evolutionary change in the print edition should be a reduction of the columnn width so that 6 columns can still fit on the Journal's page. FT's columns now are much narrower than the Journal's. So, this change should not be too disturbing although font size might have to be reduced a bit.

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