By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Flipping channels the other night, I blundered upon Real Sex, the popular HBO series whose sniggering raciness always makes me want to trade in my genitals. A “multiorgasmic” middle-aged white woman was holding a Kama Sutra class on her living-room floor. After demonstrating a terrific new sexual position, she gushed, “For me, I can do a kind of windshield-wiper effect on my G-spot.”
I suspect The Wall Street Journal was hoping to accomplish the journalistic equivalent of the same thing when, on April 9, it shifted into a new position of its own -- a redesign to make the paper sexier. It switched around some sections, retooled its front page for the first time in 60 years (sullying its austere black-and-white with pastels) and introduced a regular new stand-alone section, “Personal Journal,” devoted to the lifestyles of the would-be rich and famous -- you know, investments, real estate, travel, wine, gadgets. Although “Personal Journal” does run a few articles about arts and ideas (its critics are pretty good), it’s essentially about saving money or spending it. (For the Right, the personal is the financial.)
The editors were eager to show off their new product -- Journal ads dubbed the changes “Our Biggest Story in 100 Years!” -- and readers didn‘t merely get the redesign itself. We also got a full-page article explaining how to read the new paper -- complete with graphics about as useful as an IKEA instruction sheet and a reminder that its famous Column Four features will continue to be found on . . . column four. (Whew!) And that wasn’t all: The publisher had written a letter talking about the changes. By the time I hit the editorial page‘s separate piece on the revamp -- which hilariously began, “Please excuse us if we take a moment to mention our make-over” -- I started wondering if this was really the same paper that had spent the last quarter-century thumping the ’60s generation for its self-absorption and self-indulgence.
Although you can‘t properly judge any face-lift until you get used to it, I’m sorry to see the Journal chasing after popularity with lip gloss. It has long been America‘s most rigorously designed (and best-written) daily, and this less stern version feels paradoxically less seductive -- like swapping your favorite dominatrix for the girl next door. The front-page pastels look washed-out, and the airy new editorial page -- denuded of its crisply ruled lines -- seems ready to fly away, which is slightly odd, for the same menagerie of reactionary pit bulls are still barking away on its pages.
By refurbishing itself in this way, the Journal has clearly fired a shot across the bow of The New York Times, against which it is struggling to be the dominant elite newspaper in the national market. Naturally the Times hasn’t stood idle. On April 2, hoping to steal its rival‘s thunder, it unveiled a re-configured national edition that now includes stand-alone “Dining InDining Out” and “House & Home” sections. And even before that, new editor Howell Raines had begun inserting “soft” features -- on Botox, say, or Marshall Faulk -- on its traditionally hard-news front page, thereby challenging the Journal’s Column Four.
The Journal‘s changes were looked at with derisive glee in USA Today by its founder, Al Neuharth, who predicted that they were just the beginning. Next up would be loud red and green boxes. “The still-small headlines and graphics must grow up,” he scolded. This was his way of saying that, to flourish, the Journal and the Times must eventually look as cheesy as his own paper. In fact, the Journal and the Times aspire to be the Gucci of newspapers. As William Powers (no relation) pointed out first in the National Journal, both are obviously targeting those coveted readers who own multiple homes and vacation in the Seychelles -- or at least aspire to. This is an audience that sees no contradiction between getting serious news coverage and being informed about the arts and prerogatives of posh taste. That’s why the Times tells them all about furniture fairs in Milan or treats Michelin superstar Alain Ducasse as house chef (learn to cook rib-eye steaks from the master!). That‘s why the very first “Personal Journal” ran a long, belated article unraveling one of the ur-myths of arriviste culture -- how a select few have managed to go beyond gold, platinum and titanium to receive American Express’ fabled $1,000-a-year Black Card (social climbing has its privileges).
To see the imperialism of what Powers has dubbed “Lifestyle Voyeurism,” you need merely consider the career trajectory of the Times‘ famed political reporter R.W. Apple Jr. Even as his news commentaries have become shameless clock punching -- his piece on the Mideast crisis’ echoes of World War I was an orgy of armchair commonplaces -- he‘ll eagerly jet anywhere to produce belabored pieces on Tiptree marmalade, Sonoma County cheeses, Miami’s best cubano sandwiches. I picture his news editors asking him to cover a serious political story and Apple just chomping away, like the star of a Carl‘s Jr. commercial shot atop Mount Olympus: “Don’t bother me. I‘m eating.”