Ever since Wall Street Journal auteur Bernard “Barney” Kilgore took over the publication in the early 1940s, its editors have been expanding the realm encompassed by a daily financial newspaper. To the hard numbers and gray charts of markets Kilgore added features, news digests, and coverage outside the business orbit.
The experimentation continued after Kilgore’s death in 1967 as the paper continued to evolve. It launched an Asian edition (1976) and a European one (1983), added new sections to the paper—”Money & Investing” (1980), “Marketplace” (1988), and “Personal Journal” (2002)—and added a Saturday paper, Weekend Edition (2005).
The redefinition of the Journal as more than a business newspaper has hastened under Rupert Murdoch, who purchased it in 2007. The Murdochized Journal has aggressively generalized its news and features in an effort to replace the New York Times as the nation’s dominant upmarket daily.
Today, a completely revamped Weekend Edition, WSJ Weekend, debuts to advance that ambition. While it won’t replace the Sunday New York Times on my reading menu, if the paper continues to produce an edition that shines as brightly as today’s, I’ll be spending less time with my current Saturday favorite, the weekend edition of the Financial Times.
In praising WSJ Weekend, I ignore my general policy of not reviewing a new publication or redesign for a few issues until the editors get the beast under control. First issues can be like prototypes rushed to market or out-of-town Broadway tryouts that get better after a few iterations. But WSJ Weekend seems complete enough and competent enough to stand up to my praise and minor criticism. There’s a lot of good reading here.
Except for the new nameplate, the front section is basically unchanged. The contours of the “Business & Finance” section won’t surprise regular readers of the paper, either. The radical changes come in “Review,” which incorporates expanded book reviews, the arts, and the sort of culture, politics, and “ideas” journalism that you find in the Sunday “perspectives” sections of newspapers, and “Off Duty,” basically discerning news you can use about consuming (food, fashion, travel, decorating, etc.). The new design isn’t really eye-catching, unless calling attention to yourself qualifies as eye-catching.
“Review” has recruited name-brand writers for its first issue. There’s Kwame Anthony Appiah on how to deal with “honor killers,” James Grant on what a terrible economist John Kenneth Galbraith was, a Matt Ridley column on the science of human nature, a Gregg Easterbrook book review, a humor column by Joe Queenan, a “Commerce & Culture” column by Virginia Postrel, and a lead essay about geniuses and tinkering by Steven Johnson. Often, the big names brought in to help start a new publication or revamp an old one are there for their marquee value only and turn in crap copy. Not here.
“Off Duty” corrals a piece by Malcolm Gladwell about writing in coffee shops and brings back regular contributors Dan Neil on cars and Jay McInerney on wine. Without screaming “Welcome to the Women’s Section,” many pages in “Off Duty” appear to target the Journal’s female readers, with coverage about fashion, decorating, and cooking. I know nothing about these topics, so at my request, a woman I know whose editorial judgment is spectacular gave “Off Duty” the three-minute page-through to determine whether it should go into the recycling or be set aside for Sunday reading. She ruled that it be placed in the Sunday pile. There is no greater honor in American journalism.
WSJ Weekend marks, with the recent addition of a New York section in the New York edition, yet another foray in Murdoch’s declared war on the New York Times. But even he must see that it’s not the equal of the Sunday Times, and that taken together with the other five days of the Journal it doesn’t equal a weekly subscription to the Times. But would Barney Kilgore approve of this extension of his paper? I think so.
Addendum: This piece was updated on Sept. 27 at 7:35 p.m.
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