Resurgent WSJ Marches Into Glorious Future

Rivals are crushed, Aussie sister paper says; Elitists, counter-revolutionary elements on the bleedin' run

Here’s an interesting thought experiment: What do you get when a longtime Rupert Murdoch newspaper interviews one of Murdoch’s key employees about one of Murdoch’s newer papers? A story like this:

Resurgent Wall Street Journal rallies as crisis rips through rivals

Yes, that’s a real headline. It only lacks a similarly credulous subhead, which could have been culled from a quote in the story:

Feedback: “Almost entirely” positive

The Australian sat down with Journal top editor Robert Thomson, who was installed after Murdoch ran roughshod over an agreement that he wouldn’t run roughshod over the WSJ newsroom. The resulting story is essentially a News Corp. press release:

Since joining the business (which was acquired by The Australian’s owner News Corporation in August 2007), Thomson and his team have increased the newspaper’s circulation and doubled the number of visitors to its website. And that is while the US newspaper industry experiences arguably its most tumultuous period of change.

It may not have made it to the Pacific Rim yet, but the financial and economic crisis has made it easier for everyone to pick up readers, who, not surprisingly, are eager for financial and economic news. CNBC’s ratings are up, too. The FT’s numbers are up. So are everybody’s, even ours.

Maybe we can get our friends over at The Kicker to write a story about us:

Resurgent Audit blows away competition, especially Brits, Aussies

Biz press cowers at green eyeshaders’ red pencils; Anglo-Australian journalism model in full retreat

Santelli feedback
: “Universally positive “

Also not mentioned: News Corp. two months ago had to write down half of the $5.6 billion it paid for Dow Jones just sixteen months ago.

That’ll buy a lot of Vegemite!

See if you can jibe this Thomson assertion with a New York Times story from five weeks ago (emphases mine):

“Our emphasis has been to push up subscription prices. There’s a class of sale in the US called ‘individually paid’, which is the best measure of how many people are buying the paper. This quarter there’s been close to a 3per cent increase which, when you compare it to the fast-diminishing New York Times or other papers around the US, is in stark contrast.”

Here’s the NYT:

Some of that success, however, could be the result of heavy discounting, a practice that has increased since the News Corporation’s takeover. According to the most recent figures the paper filed with the Audit Bureau of Circulations, for the six months that ended Sept. 30, on an average day The Journal sold 501,000 copies at less than half the basic price, up from 420,000 in the same period in 2007, and 214,000 in 2006.

I can tell you I got a subscription to the paper and the website in September for $100 for a year, a heckuva deal. Dow Jones was furious at the discounting assertion in the Times story, but alleged no factual errors, as I wrote here.

Journal spokesman Robert Christie tells us it wanted the Times to note that it had since boosted prices:

Since the News Corp acquisition, management has been getting away from cheaper subs and raising sub prices. This policy has been in place since Sept. 2008…

My super deal may be gone, but you can still get a year of the paper for $119 or add online, too, for $36 more. We won’t know what exactly has happened to discount subscriptions until ABC releases its March 2009 numbers in three weeks. But The Australian might have noted that the Journal pushed heavily discounted subscriptions for most of a year under News Corp. and that rates are still low.

Anyway, the point is, the Times, unlike The Australian, checked an alternative source.

Thomson says the Journal’s website gets 23 million unique visitors a month—which seems awfully high. A quick check, something The Australian couldn’t be bothered with, confirms that. That 23 million number would put it above, which just doesn’t make sense. Indeed, Editor & Publisher two weeks ago reported that Nielsen said WSJ Online had 6.8 million unique visitors in February, up just 13 percent from a year ago.

Thirteen percent is a long way from the doubling of traffic mentioned above.

Christie says:

The discrepancy is due to how sites are tracked by each. Nielsen uses a panel survey and projects out the estimated web audience, and we are able to more accurately track actual visits to our site.

Generally, every site has a discrepancy w/ Nielsen (and comScore), though, some of the larger sites tend to have a larger discrepancy.

There are discrepancies, and there is seven million vs. twenty-three million. But the Australian, though, accepts only one set of numbers, the one provided by the company itself, its owner, not the ones provided by a third party. Frankly, we’d even expect better from the Sunday Tasmanian.

None of this, of course, even comes near the larger point that The Wall Street Journal has taken a pretty dramatic turn toward the pedestrian in the year and a half Murdoch has owned the joint. He and Thomson are hollowing out the paper, making it less of the essential read it’s been for decades.

At least, we can safely say, it’s doing better than The Australian.

(h/t Chris Roush)

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.