Media Headliner: Wheatcroft brings a touch of 'royalty' to WSJE

As the editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal Europe, can Patience Wheatcroft stand up to the FT, Alasdair Reid asks.

Patience Wheatcroft is, it has to be said, and in the nicest possible way, slightly hard work. We weren't prepared for this at all, as it happens - everyone we'd talked to about her had emphasised how warm and chatty and unaffected she is. And she certainly has a reputation for being generous towards hapless trade press hacks - in her early career, after all, she launched a magazine called Retail Week, and edited it with distinction for five years.

It probably doesn't help, of course, that we have to do this interview by phone, on a conference call, with a PR person sitting in. That in itself can sometimes put a dampener on things, even in the most relaxed of corporate cultures.

On the other hand, it's not as if Wheatcroft is reticent by nature. She's an accomplished after-dinner speaker and a regular performer on conference platforms. And just last week, she was on BBC2's Newsnight, grilling contributors, with finely judged intellectual severity, about potentially innovative ways to recast taxation policy.

A reminder, should we have needed it, that Wheatcroft, as well as having a softer side, can present a rather austere facade too. So, yes, minutes after our interview begins, we start to realise that, thanks to her rather lean replies, our modest list of prepared questions is being eaten up at an alarming rate.

It's only towards the end of our allotted time that there's a hint of a thaw, when she reveals, apropos our lowdown questionnaire, that she's in two minds about whether to record, as her gadget of choice, her BlackBerry or her favourite potato peeler.

We're still sceptical about this proposition. Patience Wheatcroft peeling spuds? The very idea! She is, after all, as close as you come to media royalty at the posh end of the newspaper market, having been the business editor of The Times for nine years and the editor of The Sunday Telegraph for rather less than that.

Serious jobs. There is, in short, no getting away from Wheatcroft's track record as a serious journalist; or indeed the seriousness with which she's taking on her latest challenge as the relatively new editor-in-chief (her appointment was announced back in June) of The Wall Street Journal Europe.

The WSJE relaunched on Tuesday as part of a major strategic push to capture the European (we include the UK in this, obviously) market. It is, you have to suspect, a rather tall order.

The paper, under its previous owners, the Bancroft family, flirted with this notion more than once over the past couple of decades - but its efforts, including editorial tweaks and substantial marketing efforts, have tended to break up on that rocky shore known as the Financial Times.

The FT is a European paper with a robustly generic title; whereas anything with "Wall Street" on the masthead can't help but feel US-centric. There's always been a feeling in the past, for instance, that the FT has been more successful at making inroads into the Journal's home market than the other way around.

But times have changed. Having unsuccessfully stalked the FT for years, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation eventually turned its attentions to the Journal and its Dow Jones infrastructure, concluding a bitterly contested takeover deal in December 2007.

News Corp has grand ambitions for its latest plaything - as indeed is evidenced in the US market where, thanks to a strategy of broadening the paper's appeal both demographically and geographically, its headline circulation figure for September, 2,024,269 was up 0.6 per cent year on year. Given the current US market, that's a near- miraculous growth rate.

But coincidentally, the WSJE also claims to be the fastest-growing brand in print and online among European business readers - as proved by the recently published BE: Europe (feature, page 23) survey. But on a circulation of 75,000, the paper starts from a relatively low base. The FT's sale in the UK alone is just over 119,000 and it claims to sell just about the same number again across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Understandably, Wheatcroft neatly sidesteps any competitive comparisons, preferring to emphasise the absolute strengths of her title and the resource it can bring to bear through its sister titles, the Dow Jones organisation and (tacitly) News Corp.

"Newspapers have personalities and The Wall Street Journal, globally, is a fantastic brand with a personality that has grown up over a long time ... and it has the benefit of a large editorial resource to draw on," she says.

Innovations include new analysis features, new columnists, a new front-page design, easier navigation, a more simplified layout and a greater use of colour.

And clearly, of course, the proof of the pudding will be in the circulation figures - although Wheatcroft is far too canny to hand us any hostages to fortune in the shape of sales targets. Instead she offers us, in time-honoured fashion, the notion that, as with all good newspaper relaunches, a publishing company can have its cake and eat it - and make the sorts of inspired changes that, in a very real sense, merely underline continuity.

It may look like something of a departure, especially the front page, she states - but the revamp essentially builds on what was already there. "It looks different and there is new content but it's a gentle reshaping," she concludes.

Age: 58
Lives: Blackheath, South-East London
Family: Husband, three children, one daughter-in-law
Most treasured possession: Ring that was specially made with the
birthstones of each child
Favourite gadget: BlackBerry
Interests outside work: Opera, skiing
Motto: Carpe diem - seize the day


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