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Nov. 5, 2013, 1:25 p.m.
Audience & Social

Six lessons The Wall Street Journal learned from its experiment in reality TV

What happens when a newspaper decides to build its own Shark Tank?

Donald Trump may be a Wall Street Journal reader, but the Journal is not a brand that immediately evokes the style of Trump’s long-running reality show The Apprentice. And yet the Journal is experimenting with its own interpretation of the genre, having just completed a 20-week first-season run of its Startup of the Year online show — a contest that the Journal calls an “interactive crash-course in entrepreneurship.”

Actually, Startup of the Year is more Shark Tank than The Apprentice, says Andy Regal, executive producer of WSJ Video. Regal says he and his colleagues used reality show elements “in the broadest of terms” to fill what they see as a vacuum in coverage of innovation and entrepreneurship.

The series entailed 338 videos, each between about two minutes and seven minutes long, as the Journal tracked 24 new businesses vying for the Startup of the Year title. Last night, it announced the winner is Rebellion Photonics, a Texas-based company that builds chemical imaging cameras that can spot explosive gas leaks on oil rigs.

Over the course of 20 weeks, a group of Wall Street Journal editors winnowed down the list of competitors as they completed various tasks and activities — debates, elevator pitches, shooting clay pigeons that represent business frustrations, etc. Contestants were invited to participate in mentoring sessions with billionaire entrepreneurs like designer Tory Burch and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Here are some highlights:

The project was a way for the Journal to continue experimenting with video at a time when there’s huge demand for it. (Last year, then-Digital Network managing editor Raju Narisetti told me that “from a business point of view, we cannot generate enough video streams.”)

But Startup of the Year is also a way for the paper to go after an untapped audience of young entrepreneurs and business students. The Wall Street Journal believes it can convert this demographic into a new generation of Journal readers by showcasing a “dramatic slice” of their own world, Regal said.

The Journal’s definition of “dramatic” means exploring the travails of launching a business without the traditional reality-television format of “taking entrepreneurs to bars and showing them in bikinis,” Regal says. So it’s not surprising that much of Startup of the Year feels a bit closer to C-SPAN than E! on the reality TV spectrum. Still, the Journal learned that this kind of storytelling benefits from a lighter approach — combining a “documentary feel with more drama and suspense.”

And although the show traced the path of 24 companies through elimination rounds to a single winner, video producers at the newspaper insist the storytelling approach was meant to be nonlinear.

That’s why, for example, the show’s landing page isn’t organized in a way that lends itself to binge-watching the season in full. Instead, the idea is to encourage viewers to dip in and out of the storyline at any point.

The Journal was reluctant to share specific metrics about Startup of the Year viewership — other than to say content from the series was streamed 1.3 million times — though they’ve already decided to have a second season.

To understand some of the biggest surprises and lessons from season one, I caught up with Regal, deputy managing editor for WSJ Digital Gabriella Stern, and small business news editor Vanessa O’Connell. Here’s what they learned:

1. New kinds of storytelling can mean new kinds of audiences

Regal: Fully more than 50 percent of people clicking on videos we produce aren’t consuming them through the homepage. We thought this was a great opportunity to broaden the Journal audience to younger MBA students or entrepreneurs. I was an entrepreneur for many years before I came to the Journal and I wish I had seen this.
Stern: We want to own [this area of coverage]. We want to be the one-stop shop for people who care about entrepreneurship. Between The Accelerators blog, WSJ Startup of the Year, the stories the startup team produces, our tech coverage — plus we have something called Venture Wire about the financing of startups — we think the Journal has a real opportunity to be the essential place.

2. All great storytelling requires great characters

Stern: We wanted to make sure we had some startups in the mix that were sort of socially beneficial, we wanted them to have social utility…We were very careful to cast a wide net. We really made an effort to get a broad range of applicants. So we not only had tons of women in the initial 24, but of the three finalists, two of them have women CEOs. We’re really happy about that. Certainly gender was not a criteria, but what it shows you is if you make an effort to cast a wide net, you’re going to have diversity.

3. Journalists influence the outcome of a story, and sometimes that’s okay

Regal: We were able to get global thought leaders, some of the best minds in the world…We have so much anecdotal evidence that [participation in Startup of the Year] turned into investments from VCs or contacts they never could have gotten themselves because people saw the product in The Wall Street Journal.
Stern: I’m pretty old school. I’m 53. I’ve been doing journalism for a long time. There have always been stories that had an impact on the subject of the stories. It’s not unusual for great stories to help subjects of stories. In this case, because we were a startup and this was season one, we had no idea what would happen. We were confident that we would produce content about how to build a business that would be interesting, educational. We didn’t not know what the impact would be on the startups. We had no idea.

4. “Interactive” is not a one-size-fits-all designation

Stern: We didn’t want it to be just words on a page, we didn’t want it to be video you watch just passively. We wanted it to be video, words, and interactivity, so you had this sort of multi-dimensional documentary.

We had a voting game where audiences could cast a vote, but people could cast a vote multiple times, so we called it a game. We didn’t take those votes into consideration. We had a couple cafes, some hangouts — we had some in New York, one in San Francisco — where we actually brought together startups, mentors, and members of the broader community to interact. One time we had do a surprise mentorship.

5. Always look for ways to complement other areas of the newsroom

O’Connell: This has helped tremendously in our sourcing. Looking to identify people who are gurus, people who are able to articulate big things, share knowledge around big themes. So this fits really well with our newsroom coverage. It helps us spread out our knowledge base a lot, even if we don’t use the same format.
Stern: The business editor Dennis Berman, who is very interested in entrepreneurship coverage, did something interesting. The last five weeks, we’ve profiled the five finalists. It was really a nice thing and we didn’t start out with that in mind. We’re so digitally minded that we just didn’t think in terms of what we call print adjacency, but it just seemed to be a natural evolution. I think in season two, we will probably formalize the print component.

6. Don’t be afraid to loosen up, even if you’re The Wall Street Journal

Regal: To be frank, because this was a little bit different and evolutionary for us, I was concerned about going too far and doing too much of the kinds of things that bring consumers in. I thought at great length about the fact that this had to have the WSJ brand in front of it. We weren’t going to do anything to compromise the brand and what the brand means for journalism. In season two, I hope we would get even closer to what it really is like — and I think we did this in spurts — to what it really is like to start a business.

We got a little piece of tape [of one of the contestants] sitting on the ground, looking dejected and demoralized next to the wheel of his car and there’s a boot on it. And we got a tape of him saying, “This is really what entrepreneurship is about. Yes, we park illegally. No, we don’t pay the tickets on time. This is what it really takes.” I hope we get a little closer more often to the struggles and the achievements of entrepreneurship.

Stern: I think what we mean by staying true to the Journal brand is not being, you know, hugely sober and business-y all the time. It’s about quality, it’s about fairness, it’s about accuracy, completeness, and thoroughness. But the Journal is a broader news organization certainly than it was five or 10 years ago.
POSTED     Nov. 5, 2013, 1:25 p.m.
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