How The Wsj Is Like Jell-O

If you read the Wall Street Journal, you got a surprise April 9: a redesigned paper. It had a new section, Personal Journal, that was filled with what we in the business call "news you can use." One story asked, "Should overweight kids take pills?" Another explored American Express's mysterious, ultra-elite "black card" that presumes at least $150,000 of spending a year. The paper was splashed with color, including a redesigned page one. Lots of small boxes (also in color) provided teasers for inside stories. We call this being "reader friendly"--yikes, in The Wall Street Journal!

Of course, the Journal has long had superior writing and reporting. It has also long spoken to some of its readers' personal needs with chatty columns like Sue Shellenbarger's "Work & Family" and Walt Mossberg's "Personal Technology." But through it all, the Journal maintained an almost-defiant austerity and plainness. Black and white; rare pictures. The Journal walked. It didn't skip or frolic. Well, the new Journal ends austerity. It may not yet frolic, but it's sure skipping. This involves more than journalism.

Every product must connect with a new generation of customers--or risk oblivion. The Journal is trying to keep pace with popular culture. Its past success shadowed the rise of the post-World War II managerial and professional class. In 1946 the Journal's circulation totaled 64,400; today it is nearly 1.8 million. But that class itself is changing, because it is bigger, has more women and reflects shifting popular sensibilities.

"The fundamental reason someone becomes loyal to something--beyond mindless habit--is because the brand contains meanings that resonate in a person's life," says Susan Fournier, a marketing specialist at the Harvard Business School. "Meanings do have a shelf life. They come out of culture, and as time goes on they get stale. Culture evolves."

Though abstract, this passes the reality test. Consider Cadillac. In 1950 it had roughly 75 percent of the luxury-car market. Elvis collected them. "Perhaps never before or since," said BusinessWeek in a recent cover story, "has a single brand so embodied the hopes and dreams of the consuming classes." No more. In 2001 Cadillac had less than 15 percent of its market. Its average buyer was 66, compared with 51 for Lexus and 47 for BMW. For younger buyers it symbolized stuffiness. Could Cadillac disappear entirely? Well, it might if the radical new design for Cadillac doesn't lure younger buyers.

Or take the nightly network-news programs of ABC, CBS and NBC. Twenty years ago it was inconceivable that one or all might go off the air. Now the possibility is openly discussed. From the 1991-92 TV season to the 2000-01 season, their audiences shrank by almost 25 percent, says Nielsen Media Research. (Since September 11 there's been some recovery.) You know who's watching by the ads, which plug anti-arthritis and anti-stroke pills.

The Journal's situation is hardly so dire. The paper's readership is hugely loyal and, for advertisers, immensely attractive. In 1999 readers had a median household income of $162,000 (meaning that half were above that, half below) and a median net worth of almost $1 million, according to a readership survey. The average 52 minutes spent with the paper was an impressive time commitment and vote of confidence. Still, there are disturbing trends.

First, circulation hasn't increased, despite the stock-market boom. Indeed, the paper's sales have drifted down, from 1.834 million in 1991 to 1.788 million in 2001. Readers are also aging. In 1985 the median age was 47; in 1999 it was 54. (To be fair, this largely reflects graying baby boomers. Since 1990 the median age of NEWSWEEK readers has risen five years, to 45.)

Second, the readership doesn't include many women, despite their job gains. In 1999 women represented 17 percent of Journal subscribers, up only slightly from 13 percent in 1985. (However, the small increase may hide a shift from a "legacy audience of rich widows and retirees" who maintained husbands' subscriptions to more managers, says Gennaro Nunziato of the Journal.)

No product is guaranteed immortality. While at an ad agency in the 1980s, Harvard's Fournier worked on a campaign for Jell-O. One of the nation's oldest brands (1897), it was languishing. "It seemed out of date," she says. "Everyone was into natural food, and it was artificial." For a while, ads urged moms to put fruit in their Jell-O. That flopped. Too preachy. Then there were some new recipes, and an old ad theme was resurrected: food as fun. Jell-O had been fun for moms as kids; now it could be fun for their kids. It was suddenly, says Fournier, a wonderful "bridge product"--a generational triumph of Jell-O's "wiggly, jiggly texture." (It didn't hurt that Jell-O also introduced ready-to-eat snacks in the 1980s and early 1990s.) On a typical day, supermarkets sell 1.75 million Jell-O-branded products.

The Journal faces a similar task of sustaining its appeal. In our era the boundaries separating work, leisure and family are blurring. People download their work files into home computers. At work they check on their kids and investments. Compartmentalization is tougher and rarer. People feel pressed for time--and, of course, "stressed"--not because they work so much harder but because they're tugged in many different directions. Old sex roles are being redefined and broadened; so are job descriptions. A paper that once catered to a narrow business and investing class with stock tables and exhaustive reporting must reach a larger crowd with new anxieties and, given its affluence, new demands.

It's not that younger customers are better than older customers. But they're necessary customers, and whether the Journal succeeds in capturing them will be the decisive test of its redesign. Good journalism and the economics of newspaper publishing must both ultimately submit to the dictum of legendary Wall Street Journal editor Barney Kilgore, who dominated the paper from 1941 to 1966 and once said: "The easiest thing in the world for any reader to do is stop reading." Still true.