Since its inception in 1889, the Wall Street Journal has provided uninterrupted reporting from its home in New York City and beyond. With a total daily circulation of almost three million, the Journal is one of the largest newspapers in the world today. Here, we take a look at America’s premier business-focused publication.
- Founding and Early History
- Ownership History
- Principles of the Journal
- Pulitzer Prizes
- Branching Out
- Historical Circulation Figures
The Wall Street Journal’s genesis sprung out from the heart of Wall Street itself: the New York Stock Exchange. In the 1880s, publishing firm Dow Jones & Company cut their teeth with a product known affectionately as “flimsies”, which were small pieces of imprinted carbon tracing paper, hand-delivered to traders. The flimsies featured financial news, as well as the Dow Jones Industrial Average, launched officially in 1896.
After a while, the flimsies would be compiled into a two-page daily summary, and on July 8, 1889, that summary would be converted into the first edition of the Wall Street Journal by reporters Charles Dow, Edward Jones and Charles Bergstresser. Dow, serving as editor, quickly outlined the paper’s purpose in a mission statement, declaring:
Its object is to give fully and fairly the daily news attending the fluctuations in prices of stocks, bonds, and some classes of commodities. It will aim steadily at being a paper of news and not a paper of opinions.
Due to its heritage, many on Wall Street would surely have questioned “Is the Wall Street Journal a newspaper?” At first, the answer was probably: not really. But by the end of the century, the Journal had begun incorporating more traditional news stories alongside its customary stock exchange figures. As typical Wall Street Journal subjects evolved from being purely financial to encompassing topics such as war and politics, the fledgling paper adhered strictly to Dow’s no-nonsense, fact-based approach. For the rest of his career, Dow demanded that his reporters write without rhetoric or bias, offering a contrast to most other newspapers of the time.
Front page of the Wall Street Journal, April 6 1987
Dow Jones & Company retained ownership of the Wall Street Journal until the early 20th century. Plagued by health problems, Dow wrote his final editorial in April 1902, before he and Bergstresser sold their shares in the company to Boston newsman Clarence W. Barron for $130,000.
With Barron at the helm, the Journal’s circulation grew from 7,000 to 50,000 at the end of the 1920s. Barron was renowned for advocating the scrutinizing of corporate financial records, and is consequently regarded by many as the founder of modern financial journalism; this was evident in the manner in which Barron ran the Journal, championing the integrity of his predecessors, stating that “The Wall Street Journal must stand for what is best in Wall Street”.
Barron remained in charge until his death in 1928, at which point ownership was transferred to his descendants, the Bancroft family.
The Bancroft family kept control of Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal for almost eighty years, until, in 2007, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation made a takeover bid for the company, offering almost double the current stock share price.
While the Bancrofts initially rejected the proposal, three months later they agreed to a $5 billion sale, and the Wall Street Journal became part of a mass media empire that already boasted Fox News, The Times and the New York Post.
Since its inception, the Wall Street Journal has prided itself on its individuality, and has been vocal in its intent to “speak for free markets and free people”. In 1951, former editor William H. Grimes wrote:
We believe in the individual, in his wisdom and his decency. We oppose all infringements on individual rights, whether they stem from attempts at private monopoly, labor union monopoly or from an overgrowing government.
In 1928, the Wall Street Journal publicly supported Herbert Hoover in the Presidential race. Hoover would of course win the presidency, before overseeing the infamous Wall Street Crash the following year. The Journal has abstained from endorsing any political candidate ever since.
Despite their supposed neutral political position (which Grimes defined as “radical”), the Journal has developed a reputation as a right-leaning, conservative publication, perhaps inevitable on account of its target audience. Indeed, according to a 2005 subscriber profile, the average household net worth of WSJ readers was $2.1 million.
The Journal has also been accused of adopting a more conservative tone since its acquisition by Rupert Murdoch. In 2007, a large shareholder claimed that Murdoch has long “expressed his personal, political and business biases through his newspapers and television stations”.
In 2016-17, the Journal was criticized for being too sympathetic towards Republican President Donald Trump, particularly in its coverage of alleged illegal voting in the 2016 election, and the Muslim travel ban.
Despite all this, the Journal has on occasion exhibited views not traditionally in line with conservative values, specifically those inducing perceived business and financial advantages. One such example is the paper’s stance on immigration; in a July 3, 1984 editorial, the board wrote: “we propose a five-word constitutional amendment: There shall be open borders.”
While the Wall Street Journal has long shied away from political labels or extremes, its treatment of scientific and environmental issues has quite often bypassed restraint.
One topic on which the Journal has adopted an explicit position is climate change. The paper’s editorial board has almost unequivocally rejected the scientific consensus on climate change, regularly going as far as to label climate change scientists and advocates “frauds”. Indeed, a 2015 study found that the WSJ was the newspaper least likely to discuss potential negative environmental effects of climate change, and most likely to discuss potential negative effects on the economy due to the relevant mitigation policies.
Going against the scientific grain is nothing new for the Journal. In the 1980s and 90s, the paper published numerous articles disputing the legitimacy of the evidence surrounding several supposed health hazards, such as acid rain, second-hand smoke, pesticides and asbestos.
Staff from the Wall Street Journal have been awarded 37 Pulitzer Prizes in total, the first coming in 1947, with William Grimes’ prize for Editorial Writing. Other memorable stories to win Pulitzer Prizes for the Journal include James B. Stewart’s report on insider trading in 1988, David Sandford’s 1997 piece on the AIDS virus, and the investigation into the 2018 payment to Stormy Daniels in exchange for her silence regarding her alleged affair with Donald Trump.
The WSJ also won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Reporting for their coverage on the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. The Journal’s headquarters, opposite the World Trade Center, were severely damaged by the blasts, and Foreign Editor John Bussey, remaining inside amongst the dust, debris and shattered windows, provided up-to-the-minute reports to CNBC over the phone.
Wall Street Journal front page the day after the September 11 terrorist attack
The Wall Street Journal expanded into the online realm in 1996, offering readers access to its content via a subscription service. Ten years later, it was estimated to be the largest paid-for news service on the internet, with just shy of a million subscribers.
As the popularity of wsj.com increased, so did the price. In 2013, an annual subscription cost $275, up from $119 five years earlier. In 2021, that price stands at $467 per annum.
In 2008, the lifestyle magazine WSJ. was launched, originally as a quarterly, then as a monthly from 2014 onward. Also in 2008, OpinionJournal.com, featuring content from the editorial section of the Journal, merged into the main wsj.com website.
In 2020, the Journal launched WSJ Noted., a monthly digital magazine aimed specifically at the 18-34 demographic; the Journal has never been associated with a younger audience historically, with the aforementioned 2005 study putting the average reader age at 55.
Listed below are the Wall Street Journal circulation figures at numerous junctures in its history (print only):
Date – Circulation
1902 – 7,000
1920 – 18,750
1930 – 50,000
2020 – 994,600
Despite dwindling numbers, the Wall Street Journal is still the second-most circulated print newspaper in the United States, and the highest paid-for publication. While newspaper sales have decreased steadily nationwide due to the rise of online media outlets, the Journal has managed to retain its print readership in greater numbers than its competitors; from 2016 to 2020, while the Journal did record a 16% loss in print readership, this was by far the smallest decrease amongst the biggest papers, and looks particularly positive in comparison to the losses of USA Today (45%), The New York Times (26%), the Washington Post (33%) and the Chicago Tribune (44%).
Listed below are some Wall Street Journal circulation figures for the online digital edition only:
Date – Circulation
2007 – 980,000
2018 – 1,709,000
2019 – 1,929,000 (+12.8%)
While the Journal has lost readers of its hard copy, it has gained them digitally. Indeed, in the twelve years from 2007 to 2019, the number of subscribers almost doubled, and across 2019 alone subscribers increased 13%.