“The strategic shorthand of what we’re pursuing right now is quality at scale,” said Murray, during a presentation at WAN-IFRA’s recent Virtual World News Media Congress.
“We’re the biggest we’ve ever been, but our basic premise is that we have a lot more gains that we can make, growing our audience and growing our reach with quality journalism without compromising the core identity. And we’re in a pretty good position for that right now,” he said.
The Wall Street Journal’s current audience (print and digital), its largest yet, stands at more than 3.5 million, up 13 percent from last year. Virtually all growth now comes from digital, making up 80 percent of the total. Nonetheless, the company has no plans for abandoning print and still values its legacy print audience, which, despite declining numbers, continues to be the most lucrative.
As a legacy brand, The Wall Street Journal has been engaged in a variety of digital transformation exercises, and is now focused on iterating and improving on an ongoing basis, while pushing for and maintaining cultural change, Murray said.
A data-informed organisation
One cultural sticking point revolved around putting traffic and reader data more at the core of the WSJ’s operations.
“We have such a deep legacy here of commercial separation from news that finding ways to make sure that we were measuring our journalism and being responsive without being subject to commercial pressure has been a bit of a challenge,” Murray said.
The WSJ tried different off-the-shelf data platforms over the years, but none were quite capable of capturing the entirety of the brand’s audience, especially as reader and subscriber numbers grew. Instead, it opted for building its own proprietary data system over the past years, designed to inform decision making without driving the business.
The most important stats relate to reach and engagement, with dashboards showing numbers in real-time. The WSJ also introduced monthly KPIs for those running each of its core coverage areas – and while the targets are aligned with company traffic goals, there is no direct commercial pressure on any of those areas, according to Murray.
“To be able to get our journalists accustomed to thinking about data and KPIs on an ongoing basis has been a big move for us,” he said.
“It still can be a cultural challenge at times to seize the moment, but we are working hard to make sure everybody continues to absorb the data to inform decision making without having it overtake everything,” he added.
Creating unique journalism
In addition to putting more emphasis on data, the WSJ has also been broadening the range of content it offers, expanding its general news and politics coverage, adding sports content, a fashion magazine, as well as stepping up coverage of topics such as race, climate change, and crime. Content that, in a nutshell, would have been considered outside the WSJ’s purview by previous editors, according to Murray.
“What we have really been emphasising and driving home is differentiation,” he said.
“We are always trying to ask ourselves what’s going to be our unique contribution? What is going to bring members to us that is worth the price of a subscription? How are we going to build habit with readers? What’s going to set us apart? That’s pretty much how we try to inform every day.”
One of my big takeaways from #WNMC21 is the (not-so new notion) that the bar is lower than it has ever been for entry into today’s media landscape but the bar has never been higher for publishers to deliver distinctive content – @murraymatt agrees. pic.twitter.com/Y7FfCozZAR
— Dean Roper (@DeanRoper) December 1, 2021
The past couple of years have also seen the WSJ’s experimenting with and introducing new formats, such as live Q&As, explainers, and written Q&As, which “really widen the funnel and grab existing readers,” according to Murray. Concretely, the 71 pieces of this type of content produced by WSJ staff last year generated more than 27 million page views.
The WSJ is also advancing the way it presents content. Murray cited the Facebook Files as an example, an investigative series that grew out of beat reporter Jeff Horwitz’s initial reporting and rapport with whistleblower Frances Haugen.
“In the digital world, increasingly, a good story is fine but making a splash when appropriate is really important to stand out from the crowd,” Murray said.
“So we wanted to maximise everything to have an impact both in terms of formats and publishing.”
The WSJ ran Facebook Files stories every day for a week online, with around 40 to 50 people working on visuals, and created a podcast series to tell the story in different ways. The eight podcast episodes brought in 2.8 million downloads, while the stories generated some 5.5 million page views with an engagement time of more than two minutes per article.
“Part of the big lesson of Facebook Files for us is that it’s still based in great journalism. It’s still based in great reporting. It grew out of a great beat reporter, but there was so much more to be made of it by presenting it right than we would have had otherwise,” Murray said.
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