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April 21, 2015, 11:36 a.m.
Business Models

Newsonomics: The Wall Street Journal is playing a game of digital catchup

Its newly launched redesign isn’t just about aesthetics — it’s a chance to look inside the business and strategic thinking at America’s business daily.

Don’t just call it a redesign. The Wall Street Journal, like Bloomberg before it a couple of months ago, wants you think about more than appearance, which “redesign” implies for many. You might call the new Journal a multi-platform rejiggering. Importantly, it represents the first major, uh, redesign of the Journal’s digital products since way back in September 2008. As the Journal’s chief innovation officer Edward Roussel points out, in that prehistoric world, mobile accounted for only 10 percent of all usage. The world has indeed changed; unsurprisingly, “mobile” is top of mind as the Journal finishes a long process of rebuilding its digital presences.

In the background, much else is moving at the Journal. Engineers and designers are moving into the newsroom soon to work in teams and as partners with traditional newsies. The Journal is upgrading its analytics functions, bringing those into the newsroom and into wider business usage. It’s buying into agile development.

If the substance and spirit of these changes sound familiar, they should. The Journal’s peers at FT, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and others plying the national/global news trade have all made broadly similar moves within the past couple of years. The new Journal, under Dow Jones CEO Will Lewis, editor Gerry Baker, and Roussel, are plainly playing catchup. Given News Corp’s deep pockets, that catchup doesn’t place them in any financial peril, but it does highlight, once again, how much the two-year tenure of deposed Dow Jones CEO Lex Fenwick cost. With its global brand, the Journal shot out of the gate in the early iPhone and iPad era, distinguishing itself with innovative products, some of which worked, and some of which didn’t. (Parent News Corp’s The Daily ran high with its tablet-embracing iPad product, a source of good, early innovation ideas, most of which died on the vine.) Many of those responsible for leading the creation of those products have moved on to other companies, including new Fortune editor Alan Murray, who is now reshaping that magazine to compete more directly with his longtime employer, on tech (including the recent hiring of half-dozen former Gigaom staffers) and in other business sectors.

Any major change in digital products requires a major rethinking. We can pick apart the look, feel, and function of the new WSJ product — it’s lighter and more visual, of course — and I’ll provide a quick take on that below. But most important here is the business and product strategy. What do the new products tell us about the way the Journal — still the largest paid-circulation daily in the U.S. — sees the world, its readers, and its advertisers at this point? We can distill that thinking into seven distinct points.

1. Home sweet home

Side-door traffic, driven by search and then social, has driven so much of the audience acquisition game for several years. Even so, the Journal finds that two-thirds of its paying subscribers visit its homepage at least monthly — and homepage usage is growing. That’s a hugely important audience, made up of 700,000 digital-only subscribers (compared to more than 900,000 for its competitor, The New York Times and 504,000 for the Financial Times) plus a good portion of its 1.5 million print readers who sign up for all-access. These readers, the Journal believes, come to the Journal for curation — the editors’ take on the day’s (or moment’s) top news. Given the Journal’s new responsive design, that editorial hierarchy now appears across devices, says Roussel: “Whatever Almar decides is the news is the news.” Almar is Almar Latour, the Journal’s executive editor. Until now, three different editors decided story priority on smartphone/tablet, desktop, and print. While that curatorial default makes some sense, certainly, the audience knowledge now coming in tells us that reading habits often differ markedly — for the same reader — across different platforms, so the Journal may well decide to tweak how it makes story-hierarchy decisions.

2. Housecleaning

Many of us who maneuver among the apps, mobile browsers, and desktop browsers of our go-to news sources find them confusing. A share button on the phone will be at the left bottom of the page, but at the top on the desktop — with the tablet offering its own non-intuitive way of moving around a page. The Journal redesign begins to tackle those issues. In reviewing a six-year-old set of products, the Journal found a digital mess. S one byword of this change is decluttering. The number of exposed navigation options has been more than cut in half on many pages.

3. Multidevice, singular experiences

With the redo, the Journal makes the strong point this is a new beginning — not an endpoint. Its new technology systems and platforms will allow it to innovate more quickly, helping with that catchup. Even with all the work put into the products launched today, much of what the Journal wants to do to meet the needs of cross-platform readers remains a work in progress.

Take the saving of stories, for instance, a hugely important function for digital subscriber-driven websites. Other sites have allowed readers to save stories on a phone and access them on the web, or vice versa. That functionality is a couple of months away, says Roussel. Similarly, the visual signal of graying out a headline to remind readers they’ve already read it needs to work across devices. Roussel agrees and says it’s on the list, but with no likely date of introduction.

The same is true for Watchlist, providing Journal readers the ability to create their own stock portfolios, a feature that dates back to the late ’90s. Roussel says cross-device ability to access a reader’s Watchlist is a future priority as well, but for now, readers will have to input their watched stocks separately (and redundantly) on each device. Friday’s launch of the Apple Watch only makes the need for — and consumer expectation of — cross-platform seamlessness more of a must-have.

4. Beware the ratios

Two years ago, the tablet looked like a match made in heaven for national newspaper companies. It offered bigger display than smartphones and more interactivity than the desktop — and you could take it with you. Tablets still drive 10 to 15 percent of digital traffic at news sites generally, and the same is true of the Journal. But it has seen 10 percent year-over-year growth rate in tablet visitors vs. 30 to 40 percent among smartphone visitors. “The top of the funnel [allowing new readers to discover the Journal through search or social] is the smartphone,” says Roussel.

Similarly, minding both the mobile browser experience and the app experience is key. App users are power users. They drive four times more pageviews on average than do browser users. They spend twice as much as time as browser users. Apps users appear to be less likely to drop their subscriptions than others. Consequently, the Journal — like all high-end publishers, and unlike most regional news companies — saw the need to put resources into both kinds of mobile products. While that’s more expensive, it’s a necessity, with apps broadly satisfying loyal subscribers and the mobile browser the greatest source of new customers ever invented.

5. There’s still that desk

Desktop minutes are clearly shrinking as a share of overall digital minutes for all news providers, with numerous ones telling me their numbers are trending slightly down year over year. At the Journal, though, its specific use case is quite different. After all, many heavy readers spend their days in desk-bound workplaces, in front of that still unmovable desktop. So that desktop experience still makes up 56 percent of all Journal usage, about five points higher than many other news companies. For the Journal, that meant redesign decisions acknowledging that continued primacy for many, even as it also focused on mobile development. For instance, data shows that Journal subscribers start their days both on smartphones and desktops, while non-subscribers overwhelming favor mobile.

6. Mind both revenue streams

The rapid adoption of the smartphone offers a problem for many ad-dependent publishers. Mobile ads offer fetch the lowest ad rates. For the Journal, Times, FT, and peers, though, the smartphone’s strongest revenue source is subscribers, though that may be an indirect one. “Our number one goal [for the smartphone] is subscription,” says Roussel. The new products improve display for the three ad products Roussel identifies as top ones: 1) iPad interstitials; 2) web-based video and 3) native ads. A key new feature: the ability to have an ad float down page, off to the side of content, as readers scroll down the page, increase the viewability of the ad.

7. Maintain the metaphor

From its iPad inception, the Journal’s app has defaulted to a digital edition of that morning’s paper. All the content is the same as the paper, though videos can be added. It seems like a retro product in an age where the Journal has moved its newsroom profoundly 24/7. Surprisingly, the redesign still defaults. Why? 80 percent of Journal iPad users use that digital edition each month, leading Roussel to believe that the continued default still makes sense in 2015. The new iPad look does, however, make it easier to switch between digital edition and live.

The new Journal, at first look, is a good improvement. It fits into today’s news presentation trends. Its organization is more straightforward (though, oddly, a good module of editor’s picks is found at the bottom of some pages). No surprise: While it’s brighter than its predecessor, it’s still far more staid and less spirited than the recently relaunched (“Bloomberg’s Justin Smith Sees a Window in Shakeup of Digital Reader Habits”). It does seem to load more quickly, a major goal since the old site lagged competitors on this important metric. Markets data is much better presented and better integrated with text stories. These improvements may just seem commonsensical 25 years after the birth of the browser, but they should better differentiate the Journal from the general news competition and bring it back to its main utility for readers — as the nation’s business daily.

POSTED     April 21, 2015, 11:36 a.m.
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