When Sam Walker started at The Wall Street Journal 13 years ago, he spent most of his time explaining that yes, the paper did indeed cover sports. He wore suits into the locker room because that’s what the players expected a reporter from his publication to do.
Nearly a decade and a half later, he still wears suits but now it’s by choice.
The sports page — which started as a section in the Weekend Journal — has its own one-page spread in the daily paper (and two pages in the Greater New York section). Walker has an editorial staff of around 20, with correspondents located all over the world. Sports stories don’t just appear in their dedicated section, either; when appropriate, they run on the front page or elsewhere in the publication
Despite the increased effort — one of New Corps’ first initiatives after buying The Journal was to ramp up the sports section — it runs under the radar. That is, at least in part, by design.
“Everyone who reads us ultimately is a subscriber,” Walker told The Wire while seated in conference room in the paper’s midtown offices on Wednesday. “That’s what we care about. We want to build our Journal subscription base. We want to be part of the reason that it’s growing. That’s our job.”
The Advantages Of Being WSJ
That isn’t to say Walker and his crew are not inserting themselves into the national sports dialogue. For example, their cycling coverage, specifically the Floyd Landis story, continues to drive the narrative forward. There are also “big idea” stories, such as Friday’s “Why Can’t The U.S. Build A Soccer Star?” They are scoring scoops and, increasingly, access.
“We’re getting a lot of things from athletes that want to talk to our audience and we’re getting a lot of opportunities and stories that, I think, other papers don’t get just because the feeling is mutual,” Walker said. “There are a lot of people who want to reach out to our sports side because they know that we do things differently and they want to talk to our audience.”
Doing things differently is key for Walker. His sports section isn’t like Newsday‘s, the New York Post‘s, or even The New York Times‘. They write for The Journal‘s sophisticated audience, a group that doesn’t want or need game stories. They seek the same in-depth coverage they find in other parts of the paper. Walker and his staffers attempt to give that to them.
They don’t succeed all the time. Some of the humour pieces fall flat, and other efforts don’t succeed. When they miss, it’s obvious because of the small size of the news hole. If you only fill two pages a day and a story doesn’t come off right, well… “We can’t paper over bad stories,” Walker said.
But the effort and experimentation is the point. They are trying, succeeding more than they fail, and creating a new model along the way.
The Star Of The Section
Walker also has a secret weapon: Jason Gay.
The editor gushed about his star for a solid 10 minutes almost without stopping. And for good reason. The columnist recently started writing five times a week, and his efforts frequently reach into the territory of sublime. The gig is perfect for Gay’s sensibilities. Readers are responding with massive amounts of positive mail, almost half of which is from women.
“Some of the mail says it all,” Walker said. “One of my favourite letters was like from a guy, ‘I’m not a sports fan, I know nothing about Americans, he’s from Singapore, I know nothing about sports — I follow it because I kind of have to’ and he said, ‘Jason Gay is a once-in-a-generation guy and just don’t ever let him go.’ That’s the sentiment that I feel with him and what he’s doing. We try to stay out of his way as much as we can to let him do his thing.”
Gay also helps improve the section’s web presence as does the rest of the sports team. Traffic is up more than 100% since the launch in 2009. The page is important part of the paper’s efforts to drive subscriptions. Sports was one of the first sections to be taken out from behind the paywall, and it’s currently “one of the points of the sword where they try to bring in new readers,” Walker said.
The section is still very much a work in progress. It will continue to evolve as the editor and his staff learn what works and what doesn’t.
“We’re doing a lot of things for the first time. We’re still new at this. For us, a lot of it is really figuring out how to cover things, and how to manage our time, and what to cover, and what to cover more of, and what to cover less of. These are real important questions for us.”
The dress code, however, is set.
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