This morning on the train I unfolded my Wall Street Journal and suddenly felt like the Amazing Colossal Man, as the paper had suddenly shunk down to mini size to become to the old WSJ what Teen Vogue is to Vogue. My first thought was optimistic: This means less space for the editorial page! But then I became disoriented, as I tried to find and read Justin Lahart’s “Ahead of the Tape” column without having to go below the fold or spill my coffee on the unsuspecting rider to my right. It couldn’t be done. Everything seems to be in longer narrow columns. Gone also were the left-column previews of the Marketplace and Personal Journal sections that used to summarize all that was within—again my desire to consume the paper without actually opening it was foiled. And what is this new body-copy font? (Turns out it’s a custom font called Exchange, by Hoefler and Frere-Jones, alleged to be designed for the digital age.) And I think I even spotted a sans serif font in the mix.
Things were happening too fast. All that was solid seemed to be melting into air. So for mollification, I consulted the special “Reader’s Guide” insert, which features a triumphalist rundown of what’s happened that somehow fails to note, amid all the celebrating over how much easier the paper will be to use and how much more forward-looking it’s going to be, how much less space and less information the paper suddenly has. Theoretically lost space will be gained by the jettisoning of the stock-price listings that used to occupy most of section C. In its place we get expanded arts and leisure coverage (which as amusing as it can be, is still what I came to the WSJ to escape) and more infographics and summary boxes. In an attempt to purge the editorial page of all sane voices, the letters from readers have been exiled to section B. Most of these features do make the paper feel more accessible, but they give me more incentive not to read—if there’s a little summary, I’ll look at that and spoil my appetite for the rest of the article. I preferred to do my own summarizing by scanning the article for topic sentences. Now if I’m interested in an article, I have to resist the centripital pull to the summary floating in the center of the text that will bias my view of the story’s significance.
The editors have also rolled out a new slug, “The Business of Life,” to cover the paper’s occasional service pieces, and to show readers “how developments in the industries we cover throughout the paper affect your choices as a consumer.” This is a truly depressing development. The main pleasure of reading the WSJ is that it doesn’t seem to presume you are a consumer, passively responding to the world’s changes, interacting with that world only through shopping. The paper instead encourages the fantasy of control through business minutia and data, suggesting that our reaction to information could be something other than merely personal, that our goal in reading could be something other than mere entertainment. The paper often makes readers feel like the consumers are “them” and that you are instead among the productive forces shaping the world “they” are confined in.
Consequently, it feels like distinctly adult reading to me, purged of all frivolity and feigned enthusiasm and hype—it trusts you to generate your own excitement in relationship to the information. But this “Business of Life” seems like surrender of that high ground, in response, the editors allege, to the incessant demands of readers for more help in making personal decisions. Of course when asked, readers will request more advice in the abstract—in the abstract all advice is good and useful and specifically attuned to whatever problems a reader may imagine having in the future. In practice, advice can be normalizing, pedantic, generating insecurity about the decision you thought you had already settled. This new emphasis on personal advice seems a bit paternalistic—what happened to “free people and free markets”? Are the shoppers now no longer “they” but “we”? This may be a more accurate of our true situation, more consumers than producers and never strictly one or the other, but still it undermines the paper’s singular ethos, that fantasia of being above the muddle of identity-building through shopping to contemplate the broader consequences of political decisions and shifting economic indicators, that some of we consumers sought to escape to.
By presenting only news of significance to business interests, the WSJ seemed to purify the world, repdroduce it in a format made managable by the assumption that the pursuit of profit could ultimately organize and prioritize it all and make it all comprehensible from a fairly straightforward point of view. But once other personal motives are admitted, that purity is lost, and the contradictions between seeking corporate profit, social recognition and personal security simultaneously become more apparent and troubling. By folding more lifestyle elements into the paper, the editors likely hope to be adding value, and making the paper more of a one-stop publication for a reader’s daily information needs. But instead of making the paper feel more complete, the editors risk undermining the hermetic austerity it once had that fostered the businessperson’s necessary illusion, that public and private life could be walled off from each other.