A newspaper's strategies to stay profitable

(NYTIMES) – The Wall Street Journal is a rarity in 21st-century media: a newspaper that makes money. A lot of money. But at a time when the United States population is growing more racially diverse, older white men still make up the largest chunk of its readership, with retirees a close second.

“The No. 1 reason we lose subscribers is they die,” goes a joke shared by some Journal editors.

Now a special innovation team and a group of nearly 300 newsroom employees are pushing for drastic changes at the paper, which has been part of Mr Rupert Murdoch’s media empire since 2007. They say The Journal must move away from subjects of interest to established business leaders and widen its scope if it wants to succeed in the years to come.

The Journal of the future, they say, must pay more attention to social media trends and cover racial disparities in healthcare, for example, as aggressively as it pursues corporate mergers.

That argument has yet to convince executives in the top ranks of the company.

The Journal got digital publishing right before anyone else. It was one of the few news organisations to charge readers for online access starting in 1996, during the days of dial-up Internet. At the time, most other publications, including The New York Times, bought into the mantra that “information wants to be free” and ended up paying dearly for what turned out to be a misguided business strategy.

As thousands of papers across the country folded, The Journal, with its nearly 1,300-person news staff, made money, thanks to its prescient digital strategy.

The editor leading the news organisation as it figures out how to attract new readers without alienating loyal subscribers is Mr Matt Murray, 54, who got the top job in 2018 after working there for two decades.

Soon after, he assembled a strategy team focused on bringing in new digital subscribers. To oversee the group, he hired Ms Louise Story, a journalist whose career included a decade at The New York Times.

She commands a staff of 150 as chief news strategist and chief product and technology officer. Her team helped compile a significant audit of the newsroom’s practices in an effort to boost subscribers and now plays a key role in the newsroom as audience experts, advising other editors on Internet search tactics (getting noticed by Google) and social media to help increase readership.

Change in news content

In July, Mr Murray received a draft from Ms Story’s team, a 209-page blueprint on how The Journal should remake itself, called The Content Review. It noted that “in the past five years, we have had six quarters where we lost more subscribers than we gained”, and said addressing its slow-growing audience called for significant changes in everything from the paper’s social media strategy to the subjects it deemed newsworthy.

The report argued that the paper should attract new readers – specifically, women and younger professionals – by focusing more on topics such as climate change and income inequality.

Among its suggestions is to feature more women in all the paper’s stories.

But an impasse over the report has led to a divided newsroom. The company has avoided making the proposed changes because a brewing power struggle between Mr Murray and new publisher Almar Latour has contributed to a stalemate that threatens the future of The Journal.

A cultural fear of change

The Journal isn’t the only media organisation whose leaders have been challenged by its employees. Editors at The Times, the Los Angeles Times and Conde Nast have faced tough questions from staff on how they have handled race coverage or issues of bias or problematic editorials.

The Content Review didn’t pull any punches. “We have a broad cultural fear of change and we overweight the possibility of alienating some readers, compared with our opportunity cost of not changing and growing,” it read.

News Corp, the parent company of Dow Jones, the publisher of The Journal, has put pressure on the paper to double the number of subscribers. But to meet that goal, it must “reach a sustained 100 million monthly unique visitors” by June 2024, according to the report, noting that its site has never attracted more than 50 million readers in a given month.

Dow Jones disputed that figure, saying the site averaged about 55 million, with a peak of 79 million last March. (The Journal temporarily gave readers free access to its coverage of the coronavirus pandemic when it hit the United States more than a year ago.)

Earnings filings show The Journal had 2.46 million digital-only subscribers at the end of last year, including 106,000 who came aboard in the year’s final quarter.

Early last year, as Ms Story’s team was months away from making its recommendations, Mr Murray was sanguine that its eventual report would be well received by Mr Will Lewis, who was then the Dow Jones chief executive and The Journal’s publisher.

But last spring Mr Lewis suddenly stepped down. He was replaced in both jobs by Mr Latour, who had won praise within the company for his digital know-how as the publisher of Dow Jones’ Barron’s Group.

Mr Latour had his own idea of how to goose The Journal’s readership, one built on more common traffic tactics that he had employed at sister titles Barron’s and MarketWatch.

Leadership tensions stymie progress

News Corp looks like most ageing media businesses: It’s shrinking. It recorded a US$1.1 billion (S$1.5 billion) loss last year, and news revenues, with the exception of Dow Jones, continue to fall.

Dow Jones operates The Journal and several other titles such as Barron’s and MarketWatch, but not News Corp’s Australian and British newspapers, which haven’t performed as well.

The company also owns a real estate listings business, TV stations in Australia and book publisher HarperCollins.

News Corp recently hired consulting firm Deloitte to work on a project to consolidate its many divisions. That would mean cost cuts and could lead to the loss of a significant number of jobs.

What is the Wall Street Journal?

One of the key issues outlined in The Content Review was the need to retain younger readers. For years, The Journal attracted college students by offering them a reduced price; but once those offers expired, they quit the publication at a higher rate – over 70 per cent – than any other group, the report said.

To help solve that issue, Ms Story’s team launched Noted, a monthly digital magazine designed to appeal to readers under 35.

Noted was also partly the brainchild of Ms Grace Murdoch, one of Murdoch’s daughters, who had interned with Ms Story’s team in the summer of 2019 while in high school.

“We need to move beyond perceptions and embrace actual data about younger audiences, and that is what WSJ Noted will be providing,” the report read.

Based partly on a suggestion from Mr Latour, it focused entirely on practical pieces, such as “how to update your resume” or “how to approach a job interview”.

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