Competing in Explanation Space

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are on a collision course. Many readers are accustomed to thinking of the New-York-based newspapers as being quite different sorts of publications — tea and coffee for the reading classes.

But clearly the executives who run them are competing for the same space — dominance of the lofty region where short-term causal explanations of events are forged. They may operate rival explanatory standards at the moment. But it is in the nature of standards that one inevitably gains the upper hand.

The papers are the Hertz and Avis of the day-to-day truth business. Ultimately one of them is going to become generally preferred.

Among the major headings upon which they will be judged will be, of course, their respective interpretations of business, economic and political news.

Understand that independent full-service newspapers have become a rarity in the modern age. In America, there are only five: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today and The Financial Times, a global paper edited in London but distributed nationally here.

Tribune Co. is an operator of high-quality regional newspapers (Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Long Island’s Newsday among them). Gannett Co. publishes 94 local dailies besides the surprisingly lively but thin USA Today, with its hotel-padded circulation of 2.3 million, the nation’s largest. Knight Ridder Inc., with its 31 papers, is less a force in the industry all the time.

There are another dozen chains and a hundred family-owned newspapers, each capable of holding its own on a story in its own backyard. And of course a wide variety of other news organs — magazines, broadcast news organizations, wire services and newsletters — also compete to mold opinion. The result is a blooming, buzzing, and ultimately quite reassuring diversity of opinion.

But there is nothing quite like a top-notch daily newspaper. Not only are they, as news executive Jack Fuller has described them in his book News Values, “powerful engines for discovery of truth,” capable of committing dozens of thoughtful and experienced investigators to a major story on a moment’s notice. But by their very nature, newspapers also exist to communicate a sense of proportion. A good deal of their impact derives from the way they choose to play a story.

Great anxiety abounds today in the industry about what will happen as the next generation of technology is thoroughly built out. Clearly, many young readers prefer to get their news from the Web rather than paper and ink. And anyone witnessing the wholesale vertical disintegration of the broadcast television industry has to acknowledge the possibility that advertisers may find more advantageous ways of reaching the audiences that they seek.

The Financial Times shows how a cosmopolitan world view can be constantly refreshed and communicated on a shoe-string — barely three hundred full-time editorial employees around the world are required to put it out. But the bigger papers would prefer not to cut their editorial staffs of a thousand persons or more. No one willingly prunes that much.

In recent months, the competition has been heating up. Last fall, for example, the New York Times forced the Washington Post to relinquish its half of The International Herald Tribune, the Paris-based newspaper the two companies had published jointly for more than 30 years. Its plans for the small but influential daily are not yet entirely clear, but the Times acknowledges that it is thinking about changing its name. Last month The Washington Post agreed to send its content for use abroad to the Wall Street Journal, which already has Asian and European editions.

Last week a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal shined a bright light on how 51-year-old Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. had brought a new aggressiveness to The Times since taking over as publisher in 1997. Journal reporter Matthew Rose noted that, instead of protecting its newspaper franchise through the familiar strategy of diversifying into other businesses, “Mr. Sulzberger is deploying his company’s brand name more than ever by means of cable television, book publishing, national newspapering — and now international print journalism.”

The stock market has welcomed the Times’ new aggressiveness, Rose noted. Its stock had risen 50 percent in the five years since Sulzberger took over, compared with 28 percent for the Dow Jones Publishing Index. And the paper’s circulation had climbed 8 percent during the same period, to 1.2 million, at a time when many newspapers were losing circulation. The gains came almost entirely from its national edition.

The newspaper industry, on the other hand, has been somewhat taken aback by the Times’ “sharp elbows” and newfound tendency to “throw its weight around,” according to reporter Rose.

Meanwhile, The Journal has been moving towards the middle of the market from its former impregnable position as America’s business daily. For the last several years, its circulation has been flat, at around 1.8 million. More alarmingly, the average age of its readers has been creeping up — it is well over 50 now, not the youthful set, much favored by advertisers, that the Times is seeking.

On the other hand, the Journal’s web operations are the most successful in the industry — subscribers actually pay to read the paper online. And an extensive redesign last year made it look a little more like a regular newspaper — more color, less gray type, inviting graphics and a lively new personal finance section. Its next move may be to add a weekend section.

Dow Jones chairman Peter Kann has his share of peccadilloes — it is he who has run the parent company and its newspaper subsidiary for more than twenty years. His wife, former reporter Karen Elliott House, last year replaced him as the Journal’s publisher. (She doesn’t report to Kann.) During the 1990s, Dow Jones made a series of tentative and ultimately highly costly moves into electronic markets with its Telerate subsidiary. There has been grousing over the years among some of the beneficiaries of the family trust that controls Dow Jones. But there can be little doubt that Kann is among the most revered newsmen in the industry, a paragon of decency and fair play.

How is the battle between the Times and the Journal going to be decided? That is anybody’s guess. In part, it will be a marketing battle, like any other. In this respect, prizes will be an important adjunct to reputation. There is no clearer example of sharp elbows than the one The Wall Street Journal didn’t mention — the seven of fourteen Pulitzer Prizes for journalism awarded last year that were awarded to the New York Times, three of them for the paper’s 9/11 coverage. To some in the industry, that seemed a misleading picture of the distribution of top-quality work in the news business, even in a year when the major story was in New York.

What is important to understand is that beneath the glitz, newspapers actually operate as favor banks, to use novelist Tom Wolfe’s phrase from Bonfire of the Vanities. That is to say, newspapers are forever paying favors forward, in expectation of reciprocal acts of kindness from players yet unknown, accepting deposits of information and emphasis, making grants of credit and blame.

Newspapers reward their culture heroes and presidential favorites, penalize those with whom they disagree, further the activities of which they approve and ignore those which they do not, hoping all the while that the intricate web of transactions actually is in the black over time. No accountant could ever hope to make sense of it. That’s what they pay publishers and editors to do.

Still relatively differentiated, the two great newspapers are slowly becoming the Hertz and the Avis of the business of day-to-day truth. In time, one or the other of them will establish a dominant position. The initial skirmishes will take at least a decade to unfold. It will be a most interesting battle to watch.