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Wall Street Journal Book Review: Will It Sink Or Swim?

ANDREW VANACORE   09/19/10 08:23 PM ET   AP

Murdoch

NEW YORK — The Wall Street Journal's editor, Robert Thomson, is never short of fighting words. And he had a few to add in a recent interview about the Journal's new weekend edition, which launches this Saturday with two new sections including lifestyle coverage, essay-style reportage and a book review.

While these new weekend offerings might seem to resemble those of a certain Journal competitor, Thomson insists the changes are not just about challenging The New York Times.

"Nationally, there's no contest now," Thomson said. "We're more than twice as big as The New York Times. They're not a serious competitor."

For the record, the Journal sold an average of about 2 million copies nationwide on weekends compared with the Times' 900,000, according to the most recent figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The Journal leads on weekdays as well. (Asked for comment, the Times pointed out that its combined print and online audience is bigger than the Journal's based on research from MRI and the Nielsen Co.)

Since taking over in 2007 with the immense resources of News Corp. behind him, Rupert Murdoch made the Journal's declared mission to elbow aside the Times and other big-city dailies in search of a broader national audience.

First, the Murdoch's Journal expanded its news pages to cover a broader selection of news outside its traditional strengths in business and finance, especially world news. Then it added a glossy style magazine, WSJ., going after the fashion advertisers that never had much interest in the Journal before. This year came the Greater New York metro section, a move aimed at competing with the Times on its home turf.

The latest changes open a new front where the Journal has already laid some groundwork: the weekend.

Even before Murdoch took over, the Journal was looking to break outside the workweek by expanding with a three-section Saturday edition that included Weekend Journal, a catchall section with reporting on culture, books, personal technology – anything besides the Dow. It launched in 2005.

Starting next week, the Saturday Journal, under a new masthead reading "WSJ," will replace Weekend Journal with two distinct sections.

The Review section, comparable to the Times' Week in Review, will carry essay-style pieces on big ideas and events, with a pullout section inside devoted to book reviews. Gary Rosen, a former Commentary magazine editor with a background from Stanford and Harvard universities will run the section. Robert Messenger, one of the founding editors of the shuttered New York Sun, will report to Rosen as head of the book section.

The Off Duty lifestyle section will hew more toward high-end consumer reporting: fashion, tech, home decorating and design. Deborah Needleman, the editor of home decor magazine Domino before it folded last year, is leading the section as well as WSJ magazine. She has brought in fellow Domino alumnus Ruth Altchek to help run things day-to-day and Kevin Sintumuang from GQ to edit tech and gadgets. (The Journal won't reveal exactly how many extra staffers it has hired for the weekend.)

The lifestyle section, in particular, is supposed to help the Journal make a case that its advertisers can reach well-paid individuals in a buying state of mind.

As far as advertising goes, "the weekend market is quite strong. And in many ways the print weekend market will probably survive quite a while into the future even if daily demand diminishes," said Kelly Leach, the Journal's general manager.

For just that reason, newspapers have been putting a heavier focus on weekend editions for years. Readers have more time on the weekends, and those editions tend to draw more advertising. The two big Detroit dailies, for instance, now offer home delivery only on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, figuring the cost of trucking newspapers around on other days isn't worth it.

It is difficult to say who exactly is winning the war for the weekend. Whatever the Journal thinks of its competition, the Times is still the other national daily with designs on the free weekend hours of well-heeled readers. (USA Today publishes only on weekdays.)

While the Web has become a dominant news source, print editions still produce the bulk of newspaper advertising revenue. And stripping out electronic-only subscriptions, the Times is a lot closer to the Journal in terms of number of copies sold. The Times' Sunday edition sells about 1.3 million copies to 1.5 million copies of the Weekend Journal.

There's no doubt the Journal would like to widen that gap.

"We think people will have the time to sit down with one great paper," Thomson said. "And that paper will be The Wall Street Journal."

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Filed by Sammy Perlmutter  |