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Aug. 12, 2019, 12:51 p.m.
Reporting & Production

How The Wall Street Journal is building an incubator into its newsroom, with new departments and plenty of hires

While local newspapers play the 2019 Consolidation Games, the national dailies are busy with the Great Digital Subscriber Race — and making sure they have the right teams and tech in place to win.

Ready, aim, innovate: The Wall Street Journal has assembled the leaders of its new departments, spearheading initiatives with an additional three dozen or so staffers. They’ll focus on attracting new generations of readers, engaging subscribers, analyzing audience data, and other broad innovation moves.

After announcing a batch of new and expanded departments in March, Journal leadership is in the midst of turning its plans into action. Louise Story, the director of newsroom strategy, led the squad in putting together the vision.

(You may remember her from her work over 11 years and a certain innovation report at The New York Times, and/or from her blip of a time as a potential managing editor at the Los Angeles Times caught in the Lewis D’Vorkin crossfire.)

“If you want to move on something, it’s good to have people whose job specifically it is to do that. We have had people who have ongoing efforts around new audiences, such as professional women, but it hasn’t been a full-time job for anyone” — yet, Story said. “Think of [the interactions between the new teams] as an incubator in the middle of newsroom helping us change and progress.”

A round of changes

The revamp of the Journal’s strategy coincides with a changing of the guard and new extensions of Journal content into other environments. Editor-in-chief Matt Murray, a longtime Journal reporter and editor, replaced Gerard Baker 13 months ago. (Baker reportedly wasn’t a favorite among Journal journalists, some of whom questioned his editorial choices in Trump coverage. Someone in the newsroom tells me now the “mood, generally, is very good. I think most of us trust and respect Matt.”) In 2016, under Baker, the Journal offered all staff buyouts and restructured the print sections thanks to eternally disappointing print ad revenue. The Journal also laid off some staffers in 2017, though it’s still unclear how many.

This month, the Journal announced a deal with Bloomberg to put Dow Jones content on the terminal, and the outlet is also a launch partner for Apple News+ (a spot The Washington Post and The New York Times declined to focus on its own subscription efforts). The Journal said it would “be hiring around 50 additional newsroom staffers” to meet the needs of Apple’s premium offering.

(An update on the Great Digital Subscriber Race among the major national newspapers: The Journal currently has 1,818,000 digital subs, up from 1.5 million in January, and 2,617,000 subs total, including print. The New York Times has 2,988,000 people paying for digital access to its news product — 3,780,000 if you add in its cooking and crosswords products. The Washington Post, which does not share numbers as frequently, had more than 1.5 million digital subs in December. Want a broader set of data points? See the charts in this piece about the Los Angeles Times’ 170,000 digital subscribers.)

“There’s a lot of change at the Journal right now and it’s all rooted in us wanting to increase the impact of our journalism to share our reporting with more people,” Story said. (And to build the Journal into a habit for potential subscribers.)

New strategic targets

Nearly all news organizations are recognizing the need to expand their offerings and become more relatable to more people — so more people, um, are more likely to give them more money if they ask for it. The Journal’s rising departments are a strong signal of exactly where and how the 130-year-old news outlet is seeing the next lifetime. It involves journalism as a public good, a refrain commonly recited in nonprofit news circles like at the American Journalism Project but a little surprising at a financial news-focused broadsheet.

Story described one effort as such: “The new audiences group is going to focus on an initiative around professional women [and] financial literacy which is providing information about money to be helpful to people, even people who may or may not subscribe but really providing information as a public good.”

The organization is trying to reconfigure its systems by building this hub of innovation infused in the newsroom. Here are the departments, with some elaborations drawn from the March memo.

Young Audiences

This team will expand “on the success our colleagues in Membership have had in growing our college subscriber audience.” Teen-driven Rookie Magazine’s Lauren Redding and Ethar El-Katatney of AJ+ are leading it. A job description for a young audiences editor teased a new outlet for this group’s work:

The Wall Street Journal seeks a New York-based editor to oversee a multi-disciplinary team that will be creating a digital magazine meant to appeal to the growing base of readers in their 20s who already subscribe to the Journal, as well as other younger people who are looking to connect with meaningful journalism.

The magazine is digital-focused and will include journalism in all mediums — including text, graphics and video — but some of its work will also run in the newspaper periodically. The online magazine will feature content originated by this team, content curated from around the Journal as well as content created with direct participation from journalists around the Journal’s newsroom. Though it’s aimed at the Journal’s up-and-coming audience, the content will be conceived of broadly to recognize the diversity of interests and tastes of the large audience it will serve.

The digital magazine is a major project originating from the Journal’s strategy department, which is an incubator for new technologies, audience growth, community and news innovation. The department includes the full range of journalistic talent that makes the Journal one of the leading news organizations in the world — writers, video journalists, graphics designers, editors, product managers, engineers, designers, data scientists, artificial intelligence experts and more — in a lively, collaborative project to discover new offerings of journalistic value. The editorial director of the digital magazine will be a close collaborator with other leaders in the strategy department, as well as leaders of the broader newsroom.

There aren’t many times a major publication starts a new content initiative of this aspiration, and this role offers the right candidate the chance to envision something new along with a fresh team with expertise in writing, editing, video, graphics, design, product and engineering. Also within this team is a new initiative to solicit journalism submissions from people in their 20s. We are open to extensions in newsletters and welcome ideas of how to create a community of young people connecting over thoughtful content.

A Journal spokesperson clarified that it will be a media-agnostic content-creating team. But perhaps it’s not the content format but the kind of content that should be kept in mind:

New Audiences

A job listing for a product designer describes the role on the New Audience team as “work[ing] with cross-disciplinary teams to create new products and content for young people or for other new audiences.” A job posting for the group’s editor said it “will be an important voice in figuring out steps for the Journal as it seeks to become more relevant to women and diverse groups, and as we seek for more of our coverage to be more known by these groups.” The listing looked for “someone with a lens on women: What are they obsessed with right now? And how do they find their content?”

Ebony Reed, recently of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the AP, has taken the reins. (Her responsibilities include focusing on the financial literacy project for professional women, “future initiatives for minority groups,” and keeping track of the diversity of people quoted and displayed in stories and photographs.)

Membership Engagement

This group has three teams: one focused on SEO, another on newsletters and other content formats, and the third diving into the recently revamped comments system. (Remember, they’re conversations with audience voice reporters now, not comments with moderators.) This spring, the Journal tested a calendar for readers to get notified on analyst expectations. Edward Hyatt joined the Journal from News UK as the new SEO editor.

Newsroom Innovation

This group grows out of the Journal newsroom’s submissions to its Idea Portal, which is “a place anyone in the newsroom can submit an idea and also see which ideas are taken up and why. The ideas are evaluated by a committee that is open to the newsroom.” The portal, besides having a fun name reminiscent of brain travel, is a way to get all staff engaged with innovation. “If you want to help turn a big ship, and the Journal is a big place, it’s important to have transparency and to let everyone see what’s going on so they can row in the same direction,” Story said. According to the March memo, the team will have a high representation of product designers and engineers. Story and Murray are still hiring for an innovation chief, but John Schimmel is back at the Journal as the director of engineering for newsroom innovation after two years in The New York Times’ new products group. (The Times is hiring for entrepreneurs-in-residence, if you’re curious about their product guidelines.) BBC News Lab product developer Pietro Passarelli is also joining the team.

Data Solutions

This one aims to “go to the next level in audience data analytics.” (Talk about brain travel.) Ross Fadely is now the Journal’s data sciences chief, coming from a professional education company helping people transition into data science-related roles, with a Ph.D. in astrophysics. Story gave an idea of one potential metric the Journal could use: “If someone was trying to see whether a headline, photo, or choice of a story topic were good, it would be important to not just look at pageviews. You’d put pageviews in the numerator and put impressions of the story in the denominator, so that impressions would be the number of people who had the chance to open it and pageviews would be the number of people who did open.”

The final department involved here is the existing R&D branch, which is getting an expansion. It’s led by Francesco Marconi and is adding Alyssa Zeisler, Erin Riglin, and Eric Bolton. They’ll focus on machine learning and we’ve shared some of the team’s lessons already, such as on deepfakes and algorithmic reporting. (Reminder: The Post is launching a three-to-six-person lab for computational political journalism this fall.) “The R&D team is now the legacy team,” Story said. It was established one year ago, but hey, we can let the 130-year-old paper have it.

While the leadership is mostly filled out, the Journal is still hiring for its dozens of practitioners and many of the initiatives will be in full swing by the middle of the fall. “All of the ways we’re evaluating success have to do with our focus on our audience and being useful and relevant to our audience with our reporting and journalism,” Story said.

They’re not the only ones trying to build out a data science and audience engagement powerhouse in order to get to subscriber dollars first. While local newspapers are competing what our Ken Doctor has called the 2019 Consolidation Games, the big national dailies are all going full-throttle in the Great Digital Subscriber Race.

Image of chicks in an incubator by Michael Newman used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 12, 2019, 12:51 p.m.
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