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GP26Nov: The Dow Jones Is Average

Attention Deficit.  Our friend Tom Davenport just piped us a copy of The Attention Economy, his must read for anybody who wonders how you communicate in a 21st- century electronic democracy. The title is a misnomer:  he really is dealing with the inattention that is one of the side effects of the Digital Age.  He tells us what we already know but choose to ignore.  Modern technology is pouring a garbled, gigantic stream of undigested information into our lives, making it increasingly difficult to select and focus on the important, making it very tricky to communicate deeply with one’s fellow man.  If obesity threatens the health and physique of 70% of Americans, attention deficit is the disease of the intellect that has 100% of the populace in its thrall.  Our information machines are no different from the dragons in Spenser’s Faerie Queen, disgorging a stew of meaningless printouts and treatises that have made babble the new currency of discourse.  The breakdown of communication brought on by the panoply of new communication technologies is at the essence of our own consulting practice where we strive to create meaning and continuity.  We tilt with a world where the irrelevant has crowded out the important, and flashing signs have dimmed the luster of eternal truths.

The Newsman’s Dilemma.  It’s hard to think of an enterprise that’s been rocked more by the information explosion than the Wall Street Journal.  In the postwar period, Barney Kilgore took it from nowhere to everywhere, moving it beyond the traders and transaction-makers on Wall Street into every business nook and cranny until it became the nation’s biggest and best-edited newspaper.  It owned the business franchise and was on top of the read list for anyone who made a serious dollar.

But somewhere in the 1980s it started to slip off the mountain because it was not able to redefine itself.  It suffered from a buggy whip problem in a jetplane era.  Many, many others began to put forward serious business news.  The stock tables and financial reports that were at its nucleus became more quickly and freely available on computers and desktop terminals.  When it tried to play in the electronic arena with diversifications into data dissemination, it labored under print journalism norms and failed miserably.  Even the bubble-90s could not slow the relentless business and editorial erosion of the 100-year-old Journal.

The Final Straw.  Most recently, the redesign of the paper, particularly of the front page, showed us that the beloved Journal is in utter crisis.  Gone, for instance, was the Thursday Business Bulletin column, by all accounts the best read section in the newspaper.  The heavily read editorial pages were chopped up and strewn through the newspaper.  Everything now appears to be unfocused:  you never quite know where to find anything anymore.  In the attention deficit economy, the Journal does not know what to hone in on, and, for us, the readers, it is out of focus.

A Question of Character. The Journalista (our name for the editor-writer we find at the Journal) is a decent, civilized, relatively objective, intelligent fellow whom you want to get your news from.  We ourselves over the years have hired many Journalistas to write straight, terse, honest business accounts for the corporations we advise.  The Journalista still does the best, tightest writing in the nation.  That character and quality has not been lost with the decay of the Journal.  This sets Dow Jones apart from other media enterprises in the nation such as AOL Time Warner, where nothing of Luce is left, or CBS News, where all of Murrow is gone.  And things are getting sloppy at many of its business-news competitors such as Forbes, Business Week, Fortune, et. al.   The Journal  remarkably still has clear thinking and clear writing.

But the Journal has a bad habit of promoting writers to the head of the class, thinking they can manage as well.  They can’t, at least not since Y2K.  Journalistas as managers can manage the trees but not see the forest.  As all the environmentalists know, the forests are all under attack and must be protected by wholly new concepts, an effort that requires wide angle vision.  The Journalista is a good writer but an uncertain manager in a difficult age.

What to Do?  The Journal is not so unlike other major American enterprises which (a) must find clear niches to dominate domestically and (b) must globalize to a degree not yet contemplated.  For instance, its healthcare coverage is very, very promising and could be a springboard for owning the health sector, which is America’s biggest growth industry, now consuming some 17% of the GNP.  Overseas, meanwhile, it can catch up with and far surpass the Financial Times which, incidentally, is now becoming the newspaper of choice for several global businesspeople.  It’s not that the Financial Times is doing a fabulous job, but it is clearly less provincial than the Journal, which at the end of the day has a New-York-City/Cortlandt-Street state of mind.  Most recently, the New York Times is trying to go international, having rudely squeezed the Washington Post out of the International Herald Tribune in order to use it as a vehicle for its international ambitions. 

The Wall Street Decade.  It’s terribly ironic that the Wall Street Journal should come a cropper at the very moment when Wall Street itself achieved too much power in  America and created the Double Trouble Bubble Economy of the 90s, which will take yet another 10 years to unwind.  This suzerainty saw too many Wall Street types become Treasury Secretaries, an unwholesome development that dates at least back to the Reagan administration.  We had at our economic helm financial engineers from the Street who did not and do not understand the business of business.  They merely understand how to grab hold of the value created by others.  Some of these wheeler-dealers even made a run at the Wall Street Journal but were thwarted at the gates by the Bancroft family (the principal owners) who were loyal to Dow Jones traditions and responsibilities.  This vulnerability of our society to fast money boys is all the more reason why the Wall Street Journal has to be re-invented as something more than an apologist for bankers and brokers.

How Hard It Will Be to Do. The Journal management is proud that its online edition makes a nickel, and counts this feat as a signal accomplishment.  Yet one of our preeminent business thinkers considers this for-pay service a strategic mistake.  If he’s right and management is too prideful, then the Journal must suffer a revolution before it gets pointed in the right direction.  When we wrote a review of the Journal 20 or 30 years ago, it only needed to make incremental improvements to go from good to better.  Now it will have to amputate some limbs to get rid of the gangrene.  As part of its total transformation, it will need to become less of a preacher for laissez faire, more of an advocate of laissez care.  If it begins to insist on the obligations of capitalism, the Journal will become transformed in a 1,000 ways. 

But there are little signs that it might pull it off.  Notice that many, many comparative tables now appear in its pages--a fast way to tell a story in brief to the reader who cannot wade through the  swamp of words that adorn each page.  Occasionally, too, the newspaper sports a writer of panache and verve like Tunku Varadarajan, who frequently pops up in the Week End section.  This dash is sorely needed.

Blood and Guts. Whether you read what they write or see them on TV,  you are never sure how much blood courses through the arteries of the Journalistas you encounter.  There’s a lot of the Stepford wife or Stepford husband in most members of this tribe.  Left brain and no right brain.  This leads to bloodless journalism.

To get back on the mountain will take a lot of passion.  The Journal can no longer survive as a mere provider of information, but must deliver an experience charged with impact.  As it discovers its new strategy, it will also need to uncover new ways to tell its stories with enough gusto to compel our attention when MSNBC is rattling our cage in the background and Al Gore’s Blackberry is sending us urgent, discordant messages.

Best of the Week.  We took in “Maestros de Plata:  William Spratling and the Mexican Silver Renaissance” at the San Antonio Museum of Art last week.  It’s remarkable.  Curated by Penny Chittim Morill, it will be traveling to San Diego, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, New Orleans, and New York.  Be on the lookout.  We’ll have more to say about the show and William Spratling on the Global Province in coming weeks.  This show will get your attention.

P.S. We surely hope you will be home for Thanksgiving, and we recommend that you get your turkey right. It's clear that pre-soaking the turkey in brine for a considerable period will put you on the path to turkey supremo, and your stuffing should have oysters, of course. Our turkey recipe can be found on the Global Province, item number 42 of Best of Class. Happy Thanksgiving.

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