Robert Thomson has been managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. Too bad. I was looking forward to seeing how his publishing role developed as self-proclaimed particularly as the Journal swings fully into its new direction. Moreover, it is a signal now that a new, more uncertain day is dawning at the title.
This is not because Thomson lacks integrity, talent, or credibility, or because the standards per se will take a precipitous drop. The Journal retains a powerful brand and impeccable editorial reputation. No doubt the company will continue to hire from the top ranks of reporters and editors. But its move towards the mainstream is a mistake, and Thomson’s coronation is confirmation that this trajectory will accelerate.
As PRWeek learned long ago, it is better to be a leading specialist than a competitive generalist. We learned by trying to direct every interesting mainstream story through the prism of PR, to come out with our own take on the news that people could read anywhere. The problem was, our take was quite often not different enough to make it truly a PRWeek story. Now our standards are much more strict for how we define a PRWeek element, however much attention the topic gets in the pages of USA Today and on GMA.
The Journal has an even bigger problem. The public has simply too many resources for mainstream news today to make meaningful distinctions between them. And the standards by which the general public judge their media outlets now is abysmally low, as evidenced by the dumbing down of network news, and the proliferation of celebu-journalism. Thus The Wall Street Journal’s reporting on the election, for example, will not automatically create converts to the brand, who are already more than happy to read about the election in everything from the Washington Post online to the Daily Show on television. The distinction of Wall Street Journal reporting will not be immediately obvious outside its business bailiwick.
The Wall Street Journal has long held firm to its tradition of stolid, in-depth business coverage at the expense of more mainstream appeal. Thus it created an elite and enviable community, which will no doubt feel somewhat betrayed by its paper’s shift to the same grid as the few other national papers. Will its circulation numbers rise as a result? Probably. But what will be the value of those readers, and where will its community go if it feels the Journal does not deliver what they want any more?