The Wall Street Journal looks fresh and modern, and circulation is rising. For many other American newspapers, neither of those things is true
Here are three seemingly unrelated things you notice this only-in-America week. One is the rise and rise of the Wall Street Journal, up 1.2% (to 2,117,796 average copies a day) on the latest US ABC figures. Another is the impressive run of newspaper front pages posted outside the plush new Newseum in Washington DC, proclaiming Osama's death. And the third is yet another brooding prophecy of the demise of printed newspapers (this time from Ken Doctor, one of the leading US media analysts).
How long have they got? Maybe five years, maybe 15, says Ken. "Today's daily newspaper companies have little chance of surviving in anything resembling tomorrow's form very far into the future… You can't find anyone who says he has a proven, sustainable business model for moving forward." Oh woe!, as per usual, oh gloom round the globe! But hang on a moment…
You don't need to love Rupert Murdoch to admire what he's done with the WSJ. Sir Harold Evans, the white knight of the Sunday Times, has joined that fan club. The Journal (circulation revenue growing 17 straight quarters in a row, digital subscriptions up as well, by nearly 22% in a year to over half a million) has boosted its weekend edition with two new sections, added a controversial Greater New York news section, and produced the WSJ magazine more often. In short, it hasn't stood still.
The layout is crisp and notably shorter on "turns" of stories from page to page. On royal wedding morning plus one, it ran a well-focused picture across three-quarters of the front. It projects and bounces with confidence. It feels like a paper on the move.
Now examine those other front pages outside the Newseum. They're pleased that public enemy number one is dead, of course. Cue exultant headlines. But stand back on the pavement, take in the panorama, and something else registers. They all – from Lexington to Des Moines to Pueblo – look much the same. They're ex-broadsheets in format with columns squeezed to save newsprint (from crunch to crunch). They're mean, constricted, somehow shrivelling away. It's as though they'd read Ken Doctor's latest obituary and taken a turn for the worse.
That doesn't apply to the few remaining giants of the industry, to be sure. The New York Times and Washington Post may have shrunk a little, but they still seem papers in traditional mode – perhaps too traditional. Do you want a print paper, in this digital world, to turn every single one of its front-page tales to different pages inside? The Times seems to think you do. And not just that: it turns arts and business stories from their front pages inside their respective sections as well. There's nothing to read at one go. The writer, never trimmed to fit, comes first; the reader-cum-consumer doesn't seem to count. The world of Simon Kelner's i is far, far away.
Is the Washington Post also pretty much the design product you remember over the decades since Watergate – locked in a time warp, making fuzzy use of colour, prone to let stories run and run, turn and turn? Alas, yes: it, too, seems to have reacted to a world of pell-mell transition by staying much where it was. Even USA Today, which seemed to offer something fresh in the 1980s, has barely tweaked a concept since.
Newspaper websites are different. They change all the time, in look, scope and energy. $13m of NYT spending geared up its paywall. But you can't read newsstand papers in America for very long without feeling that the force is no longer with them – not because they can't still make tracks, but because faith, hope and creative endeavour have been diverted elsewhere. Suicide through atrophy.
So those three, supposedly unrelated, things are linked after all. Can the Wall Street Journal, flush with investment and edited by an Aussie Brit fresh from London's Times, advance on both print and digital fronts? It seems so. No matter that News Corp quarterly profits have taken a dive. Where there's Murdoch will, there appears to be a way. When you clear out the old obsession with a newspaper as some kind of ancestral template, you can gain, not lose, circulation.
Daily Mail executives, fresh from their 65-million-a-month unique browser figures in the latest ABCe audits, say quietly that one reason for their startling online rise in the US is simply that they do journalism sharper and better. Well, you don't need to get too mired in a controversy like that. But the US showbusiness site at Mail Online certainly knocks aggregated spots off its American competitors, at least for the moment. And the stories themselves are written hard and fast for maximum screen consumption.
So there's one question you won't find answered inside the splendour of the Newseum, the self-reverential Gannett temple of print down the ages. Are we talking tides of history here amid portents of inevitable doom? Or have too many plump, worried rabbits got caught in the headlights somewhere down Pennsylvania Avenue?