Fiddling while Rome burns

October 31st, 2006 → 5:09 pm @

Yesterday, in a parenthetical at the end of a post about Ben Stein (someone who has admirably figured out how to monetize every ounce of himself), I posed this question: Why is Joe Nocera, one of the New York Times‘s most incisive, provocative, and lucid columnists, buried away in the Saturday paper?

Well, I got the answer (from many, many, many, many people), and it’s an obvious one (and one that, at some point, I actually knew). When Nocera was hired, the Times was in a tizzy about the Wall Street Journal‘s “Weekend Edition,” which was designed to offer soft-focus, lifestyle-y features (and which is delivered to empty offices around the country every Saturday). (I kid! It’s delivered to your home. As long as you go through customer service in order to get that one paper re-routed.)

I understand that rationale: while the Times‘s and the Journal‘s audience has less of an overlap than you might think, it isn’t insignificant, and it’s not like any newspaper can afford to lose readers or advertisers these days. (You may ask yourself, ‘Self, why did it made sense to combat an avowedly soft-news edition of an otherwise hard-core business paper with one of the country’s best business colimnists?’ And you may say to yourself, ‘I have no idea.’)

But now, a little over a year later, the Journal‘s “Weekend Edition” is…not exactly a failure, but certainly not a resounding success, either. (In the last reporting period, the Weekend Journal was among the leaders in circulation losses, falling 6.7 percent, compared to 2 percent for the Journal‘s daily paper and about 3.5 percent for the Times and the Washington Post.)

Putting Nocera in the Saturday paper doesn’t reek of the sort of desperate knee-jerkism that resulted in the Times launching a hurried “Escapes” section on April 5, 2002…which just happened to be four days before the Journal introduced its long-planned (and reasonably successful) “Personal Journal.” It does, however, touch on a persistent (and annoying) oddity of the media business: the extent to which newspapers (and magazines) often make decisions based on how their competitors will react as opposed to what best serves their readers. It happens time and time again: if the Post gets a big scoop, the Times will more than likely play it down (if they cover it at all). If Newsweek comes out with a big package on corporate welfare, you can sure as hell bet Time won’t be doing anything similar any time soon (regardless of whether or not they had something in the works). And to what end? How many of the Washington Post‘s readers also read the Times? And would any of that relatively miniscule number be that bothered by seeing a similar story in another paper? The answer, clearly, is no. But for some inane reason, mis-placed institutional pride — we will not follow someone else’s reporting, dammit! — is put ahead of what would best serve customers/readers. (This is the industry, after all, that says it needs to be protected because it’s acting as a public trust…and an industry that has a whole mess of sky-is-falling doomsayers these days.)

So I’ll amend my question: How many of the Times‘s advertisers or readers are currently trying to decide between the paper’s Saturday edition and the weekend edition of the Journal? And how many people are losing out by missing Nocera’s column each week? Anyone? Anyone?

(Oh, also: no, I don’t really think Ben Stein is the world’s best columnist. But gosh darn is he a big cutey.)

Post Categories: Joe Nocera & Media reporting & New York Times & Oblique references to Talking Heads songs & Wall Street Journal