Friday, May 07, 2010

WSJ's Greater New York Section: Not Great. Yet.

Sure, the More the Merrier, but Make the Section Relevant First

Rupert Murdoch made no secret of why he wanted to create a section devoted to New York news within the Wall Street Journal. He wanted to squash The New York Times like a diseased bug, eat all the Sulzberger young and dance on their graves in some kind of bizarre pagan ritual holding aloft a copy of News Corp.'s latest earnings report.

OK, maybe not the pagan ritual, but you get the idea.

Simply put, Murdoch doesn't want the Journal to be a second read, like it is for me after I polish off as much as the Times as I can during my commute. He wants the Journal to be all the wealthy, powerful, and influential digest with their venti soy latte and brioche. Of course, if they want to use it to hide the fact they're actually reading The New York Post, no harm, no foul.
But the Greater New York section is not a category killer. It's more like an eager puppy, jumping up and down, not always peeing on the paper (the Times, of course), but eager to please.

First, the good:

---The mostly featurish approach to local sports coverage works most of the time. The Journal assumes you found out elsewhere what the score was, and if you really care what the Mets did, there are innumerable sources for recaps and analysis. But the real saving grace of the sports coverage is columnist Jason Gay, whose "The Couch" column in the regular Journal on Monday is destination reading. It's at once funny, knowledgable and reverential. But can we do away with the courtesy titles in sports stories? "Messrs. Burnett, Sabathia, and Teixeira, whom they signed in a....." Yeesh.
---The Journal made a good pickup in having Jason Gershman cover state government. He knows his way around the miasma that is Albany. At the same time, he has seamlessly shed the ideological bent that marked his reporting in the late, lamented neocon-fave The New York Sun.
---The aggressive real estate coverage definitely adds to the conversation about a topic that nobody can stop talking about.

Not as good:
--The lack of a voice. The section badly needs a feisty columnist to hoist a few petards and let us know when the glass really is half empty, like the Times has with Jim Dwyer and Clyde Haberman. Right now, the only columnist is Ralph Gardner Jr., who takes a more gentleapproach to view life in the city. A recent column focused on a guy who used to work in finance and now wears a lobster suit handing out fliers in midtown for a seafood joint. Nothing wrong with that sort of thing, but maybe not every day, and not at the expense of something hard-hitting.
--The Heard & Scene society coverage. Maybe it's just me, but I don't give two craps about who's attending what charity ball and the designer togs they're wearing. I have a feeling, among readers under 65, that I'm not alone. If you only have a 12-page section, squandering precious real estate on floss and dross just makes me finish the paper faster.
---If you're going to call the section Greater New York, then cover Greater New York. That means the world outside of the five boros, where so many of the Journal's readers live. I'm not saying you have to set up bureaus in Greenwich or Scarsdale, but there are enough interesting stories in the 'burbs going uncovered by the desultory and/or desiccated papers there that could have broad appeal for Journal readers.
---The lack of coverage about New York's blood sport: dining out. Inexplicably, the main Journal scaled back on food and wine, when it effectively dumped freelancer Raymond Sokolov's restaurant column in March and got rid of nonpareil wine columnists John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter in December.

To be sure, it really is a compliment to say that the section is a good complement to the rest of the Journal. But it is not a replacement for the Times, which for diehard readers -- from arts coverage to Maureen Dowd, from the crossword puzzle to Floyd Norris -- is simply too hard a habit to break.
There may come a point where, if you don't already do so, you might start reading the Journal because of the Greater New York section. However, it's nowhere close to getting you to stop reading the Times for the same reason.

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