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April 29, 2016, 10:12 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The Wall Street Journal website — paywalled from the very beginning — turns 20 years old today

“From the very beginning it was very clear we needed to cover all the same concerns and sensibilities of the print Journal even though we were online and even though we were a young staff.”

The Wall Street Journal has (almost) never been free to read online. When the full website — then called the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition — officially debuted online 20 years ago today, it was free for a few months.

info-wsjlookback06-1996a

“It was always the case that the Journal was going to charge for its online edition,” Dave Pettit, the Journal’s editor for specialized news products and events, told me. “We launched in April and in August they launched the subscription. The trial period was free — the earlier prototype was also free — but there was always the expectation that business news content, in particular Journal content, would be behind a subscriber paywall.”

Pettit started off at the Journal as the Money & Investing editor, spearheading a basic markets news site in 1995, and he’s been with the Journal in various positions ever since. The paper had begun assembling staff to work towards a more substantial website by 1995, and Pettit recalled that though in the early days they “were working on a shoestring,” there was always support for the online edition from top management.

“We spent that first year or so just figuring out systems of how things were going to work — coming up with a workflow, the scope of the coverage, and the design of that initial site. And then once we were live, our time was spent building that out. There were a handful of us in those days,” Pettit said. “We were fortunate that from the beginning, we got support from the top. One manifestation of that was that they made room for us right there next to the national news desk of the Journal — which was pretty cool if you’re talking 1995, 1996.”

WSJ-one-year-anniversary

“With the additional information and features of the Interactive Edition, we’re confident readers will pay the modest subscription price we’re charging,” Neil Budde, founding editor of the “Interactive Edition” who had developed prior to the basic 1995 website an early prototype service that relied on users dialing in to fetch information, said in a Journal story announcing the launch of the full website. (Budde is now vice president/executive editor at The Courier-Journal in Louisville.)

The Journal’s foray into paid online content made a splash — here’s The New York Times on the launch of WSJ.com: “Wall Street Journal Bets Internet Readers Will Pay a Fee” — and the pressure leading up to the official launch was immense.

Rich Jaroslovsky, the first president of the Online News Association and now a tech columnist for the Observer and vice president of SmartNews Inc., recalled the prelaunch breakdown in a piece for The Observer. A routine server maintenance procedure ended up taking the entire system down, without indication of when it would be back online: “Now, with the eyes of the media and tech worlds on us, we were paralyzed. Much of the work we had done in advance for the launch had been wiped out, and we sat for agonizing hours with nothing to do.”

As of this past December, WSJ.com had about 828,000 digital subscribers, with an additional 12,000 people who have access through other means (such as through their company, or a hotel paying for guests to have access). According to a Journal spokesperson, 361 people subscribed to WSJ.com at launch remain subscribers today.

Looking back, the early days feel almost comically inefficient. The workflows of the online staff and print staff were very segregated. Entry-level staffers might start out as “interactive news readers” (essentially copyeditors), and move on to doing rewrites as “interactive news writers.” Web production was a clunky process.

“We had to swap floppy disks between computers. Back then, there were worries that if we tied a web-facing computer into the internal network, we could face external security problems,” Tim Hanrahan, the Journal’s Washington online editor, said.

Hanrahan started at the Journal on the original WSJ.com team as an interactive news reader. Both he and Pettit mentioned the early hassle of having two PCs for every desk — one for internal editing and one for accessing “The Internet.” To add a link into a story, a producer had to retrieve the story from the “web” PC, then type out the whole link by hand, Pettit said.

“When we were producing the entire Wall Street Journal, we still could really only have one person at a time putting stories on the site and arranging them,” Pettit added. “It would take hours of people passing them around section to section, and things would crash all the time. The file management system we had was incredibly cranky and limited.”

Print was the backbone of the paper, though over the years, new staffers were added to report original features for the website to complement print coverage.

“We concentrated reporting resources on topics like online investing, personal finance, tech, travel — online bookings were a big thing. Before things began to pivot to much better integration, at a high point we maybe had a dedicated staff of 70, 75 people,” Pettit said. “Today all of that work continues, with our much larger, integrated staff working on both print and online.” (In January, it reorganized its newsroom, changing its Page One structure.)

“Early on, at least for me maybe because I worked nights, it felt like a lot of us on the digital staff worked evenings and nights producing the site, while some remaining folks worked during the day producing digital content like markets data, commodities stories, rewrites of corporate earnings,” Kate Ortega, now the Journal’s day editor, said. (The website from the very beginning was meant to be continually updated.) Ortega started at the Journal in the summer of 1999 as an interactive news reader (Hanrahan hired her), and moved through the paper as assistant news editor and then overseeing a team working on interactive graphics. “We were then still ‘waiting’ for print. We had some columns that were online-only, other folks who wrote feature-y content — a finance columnist. And we faced the challenges and pressures that everyone in the business probably faced — there was pressure on us to get good, solid stuff online.”

“We wanted to be credible. We wanted our colleagues at the newspaper to say, ‘Hey, these guys are pretty good,’ as opposed to, ‘There’s this other version of the Journal that’s not living up to our standards'” Hanrahan said. “We wanted to prove we were worthy of the Journal name, to make sure our voice between print and online even back then was consistent.”

“From the very beginning, it was very clear we needed to cover all the same concerns and sensibilities of the print Journal even though we were online and even though we were a young staff,” Pettit said. “We took this very seriously: Part of working at the Journal is the importance of the institution and its integrity, and that was always our starting point.”

The stuff online began to build. One of the Journal’s earliest interactives, published in 1997, illustrated how data moves across the Internet and factors that slow down performance times, Pettit said. Ortega recalled that one of the graphics team’s first big pieces was an interactive map published during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It redesigned its website several times, most recently in 2015. New sections proliferated. It launched WSJ Pro, an additional subscription service across specialized industries. It has multiple mobile apps. Today, the Journal’s interactives can be found in 3D, and it was the first American newspaper to get an official spot on Snapchat Discover.

“Today, we’ve got early days WSJ.com folks all over. You can see them on every desk,” Ortega said. “There are people leading the What’s News app launch, someone doing video, folks on the money and investment desk. Our little core group got interspersed to the rest of the newsroom and have done well for themselves!”

“The major difference now I would say is that we went from being an important but obviously different part of the Journal, from being off on the side, to being the center of what we do today,” Hanrahan said. “The roles of colleagues have gone from being very specific, to just as much online as print, just as much digital as traditional. The old walls have disappeared.”

Photo inside the story of Neil Budde, Rich Jaroslovsky, Tom Baker at the one year anniversary of WSJ.com by Jennifer Edson. Head photo of Editor Mike Elek in the newsroom by Jennifer Edson.

POSTED     April 29, 2016, 10:12 a.m.
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