The world is his oyster

The managing editor of The Wall Street Journal has big plans to expand the title, he tells Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

According to an apocryphal story, The Wall Street Journal once referred to a certain biblical prophet as "Moses, a Jewish leader". This tale is recounted by Paul E Steiger, the Journal's managing editor (the American equivalent of editor-in-chief), not to scoff at its pedantry but to praise the attention to detail associated with his title. "I don't think that [story] is actually true, but the idea is: 'When in doubt, explain.' That has always motivated us," he says.

Outrageous hoaxes have, in recent years, damaged the standing of some of the most revered American-based news organisations, most notably The New York Times and CBS News.

But Steiger - in London for the World Leadership Forum's Business Journalist of the Year Awards - thinks that the credibility of journalism faces a greater threat than that posed by the fall-out from such scandals. The danger, he believes, comes from the increasing dogmatism of the public and its refusal to see any news service as untainted by bias unless it fits their own view of the world.

"People find it so much easier to get news filtered through their own preferred ideological perspective," he says. "Therefore, when they read or see something on television - something that does not meet those expectations - they find it much easier to sneer than they would have in the past. This is a big challenge for those of us who are trying to get things right and are not trying to play favourites to one ideological domain or another. I think that, in the end, pursuit of truth as opposed to pursuit of ideology enhances credibility and wins, but there have been periods in history where the balance of power has shifted to the ideological outlets."

Steiger recalls that in the 19th century it was common for American newspapers to include "Democrat" or "Republican" in their mastheads. Those times could return.

The Wall Street Journal itself dates back to 1884, when it was developed from the Dow Jones & Company "Customers' Afternoon Letter" and ran to just four pages. The title, which has won 29 Pulitzer prizes for its journalism, grew to become the biggest-selling paper in the US, before it was overtaken by USA Today. Today, the Journal has a worldwide circulation of 2.2 million (compared with the 419,386 of the Financial Times), and its readers have an average annual income of €158,977 (£110,751), the highest of any publication of its kind.

In spite of the growth of online technology and 24-hour television news, Steiger, who joined the San Francisco bureau of the Journal in 1966 and has been the paper's managing editor for 14 years, believes that print journalism has plenty of life left in it yet. "The efficiency of delivery electronically is very powerful," he says, "but the serendipity effect of seeing how editors lay out a page and discovering, through the seduction of a headline or a photograph or a well-written lead, that you care about something that you didn't know in advance you cared about - that's a continuing advantage of print and makes it highly likely that print will continue to be important."

The Journal's great asset, Steiger says, is its unrivalled coverage of its home market in the US, "the strongest economy in the world". He says: "That information is of value both to someone in Singapore and someone in Surrey. The challenge for us is to see that the information flow we are constantly pulling out of the US is not just put in an American context but in a global context."

He maintains that, post-2001, the newspaper's American roots are not a disadvantage in attracting readers from around the world. Far from it. "The advantage is that people recognise the depth of our penetration of the US economy," he says. "We are working very hard to make sure our perspective is global but - to the extent that we are American - there is nothing wrong with having an American perspective any more than there is in having a British perspective when you read The Economist or the FT, and a French perspective when you read Le Monde."

But Steiger repeatedly emphasises that he wants the Journal aimed at readers who "think globally". He has moved the paper's energy desk from its traditional home in Texas to Europe (Paris, to be exact), in order to be nearer to the Opec headquarters and major companies such as BP and Shell. "You are in time zones that are close to the Middle East, which is the ground zero of the energy business," says Steiger. Apparently the Texas bureau was quite happy, knowing it can concentrate on local businesses such as Wal-Mart. "We had a wonderful report this week from one of our Texas reporters, which said that for the first time rising oil prices are a negative for the Texas economy because Texas has diversified away from oil," he says. "That was a 'Man Bites Dog' story for our readers, and it underscores the reason why we made that shift."

The Journal has a worldwide team of 600 journalists, described by Steiger as "the largest group of journalists in any such publication". "For any story, we have the ability to put in whatever number of reporters it takes to do it," he says.

The advance of online news services has "heavily" affected the Journal, but provides "a great opportunity for us", says Steiger. The Journal's online service has 712,000 paying subscribers. The title is aligned to the Dow Jones newswires and to the CNBC business television channel. In this environment, the paper's journalists have to take a much more 24-hour approach to news, considering the deadlines of editions in Europe and Asia. Steiger says: "It adds to stress; it makes the life of a reporter covering business, finance and economics a lot more challenging than when I was a reporter back in the Sixties and Seventies."

Steiger is reluctant to criticise rivals and acknowledges that The Economist has a strong following in the US. "It's working very well for them; the London-centred perspective on US news and world news has value and I think they do a good job of it," he says.

But Frederick Kempe, the editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, claims that the UK edition of the FT has become more London-centric and believes that the Journal has an opportunity to perform better in the UK "at a time when the FT is fighting for its domestic market and has had to become a little bit more UK-orientated". He continues: "For internationally minded readers in London, we become more interesting."

To British consumers, the Journal, with its frugal use of photographs and the continued use of distinctive sketched drawings, appears archaic in its presentation.

But Steiger is pushing forward. In September this year, the Journal will launch a "weekend edition" published on Saturdays. The managing editor says: "Friday is a major day for business news, and right now we have to wait until Monday before we can deliver that news to our readers." As well as the usual news and personal finance coverage, the new edition will also include a third section on such matters as "travel, consumer electronics, food, drink, autos, fashion for both men and women, books".

Steiger says there are no "present plans" to launch this edition in Europe, in spite of the FT having an established Saturday edition. "But if we are as successful as we expect to be in the US, that's something we would look at."