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March 24, 2020, 12:26 p.m.
Aggregation & Discovery
Audience & Social
Mobile & Apps

“Just catch me up, quick”: How The Wall Street Journal is trying to reach non-news junkies

News products that the Journal built to highlight its election coverage to occasional readers are being repurposed for coronavirus coverage.

The Wall Street Journal spent months designing, testing, and perfecting a slate of tools and news products around what was sure to be the year’s biggest story: the 2020 elections. Then…coronavirus.

Fortunately, the new tools designed by the Journal’s product and news strategy teams — which include a clickthrough module to quickly catch readers up on political news, redesigned live update presentations for election nights and debates, and Q&A features — have proven adaptable.

When I spoke to Louise Story, the Journal’s chief news strategist and chief product and technology officer, last week, the paper had already launched a version of the new live Q&A tool — it was just for reporters to answer readers’ coronavirus questions, not their political ones.

This week, after a few more head-spinning news cycles, the election catch-up module on the homepage has been converted to coronavirus information. And the live coverage that’s outside the paywall? That’s where you can find highlights and to-the-minute updates like “Walmart sends corporate staff home” or “Police plan to meet Tesla factory management over compliance with coronavirus health order.”

“All of these things are based on the needs of our audience — they’re all reusable,” Story said. “We’re building things that have really neat uses during the election, but that benefit our products broadly too.”

The election-turned-coronavirus news products are just the latest iteration of the Journal’s longstanding strategy to retain existing subscribers and convert occasional readers of The Wall Street Journal into paying members by encouraging regular engagement. Last month, it announced it had passed 2 million paying subscribers, a number only The New York Times can top among American newspapers. But the fact that its paywall is harder than most of its competitors — not to mention its high sticker price for a digital sub, $39/month — means it has to be more creative than its peers in both attracting and converting new readers.

Last spring, the Journal took a deep dive into user behavior and surfaced with data on actions that boost retention and the likelihood a reader will become a paid subscriber. Then they set out to promote those actions to their member base and occasional readers through what they called “Project Habit.” (We published a breakdown of the process by The Wall Street Journal team that led the effort.)

Data clearly shows that the best way to reduce churn is to increase engagement — but the path to driving product use and building loyalty amongst members has not always been as obvious.

Over the past year, a cross-functional group here at the Journal has worked together to identify retention-driving actions and reinvent the way we promote those habits to our member base. We call it Project Habit.

We’ve known for some time that if a member downloads our mobile app or signs up for an email newsletter, they’re more likely to stay with the Journal.

The key engagement metric was active days, the group concluded. So while the news products like the catch-up module and live Q&As were designed to meet reader needs — Story said their research showed readers wanted to be able to get “caught up” on the news quickly and that some appreciated the opportunity to feel “connected and involved” with the Journal’s political coverage — the team also recognized that the tools could drive retention-friendly habits such as returning to the homepage regularly for updates.

Only paying subscribers — members, in Journal parlance — can submit questions, but anyone can tune in to see them answered. The catch-up module and the live coverage pages can also be viewed without running into the Journal’s paywall.

Each tool had to be optimized and recognizable for both subscribers and nonsubscribers, whether they were reading on their phones, desktop, or through the WSJ app, said Kabir Seth, the Journal’s vice president of product strategy and operations. “We were definitely thinking through the experience as we were building it. How does it feel for a nonmember? How does it feel for a member?” he said. “The graphics team is super important, and there’s a lot of editorial input.”

Live coverage is particularly effective at bringing in new audiences of non-subscribers, Story said. The catch-up module, which can be completed without leaving the homepage, has been performing especially well with occasional readers, a.k.a. the non-news junkies who walk among us.

An example of a catch-up module on the homepage.

The Journal tested the catch-up module at a variety of times (morning, midday, even late Friday afternoons) before settling on weekdays at lunchtime, based on engagement patterns and site traffic. They also found, through testing, that an illustration on the first card drew readers into clicking through the catch-up module better than a photo did — which also helps set it apart from other content on the homepage.

“An interesting thing about making a new story format is that it’s not just the product, technology, and design of it. There’s a different type of content. In this case, it’s short snippets of text that you run through,” Story said. “As we innovate with our products and technology, we also have to innovate with our content and our storytelling.”

In designing the news products, the Journal also hopes to benefit from the relative trust it has across the political spectrum.

A Pew study in January found it was one of only three news outlets (along with PBS and the BBC) that both Democrats and Republicans trust more than distrust. An earlier study found that the Journal’s audience is remarkably evenly distributed across the ideological spectrum. (Among conservatives, the Journal’s news reporting benefits from the paper’s hard-right editorial pages.)

“We’ve found that the Journal is in a great place to be a political news source because we’re so highly trusted on the left and the right. It’s a unique position to be in,” Story said. “That’s part of our thinking around the live Q&A and the other things that have to do with being more transparent and open to questions.”

Story said the process for building new news products is ongoing for her and Seth. Research into how readers think about politics and politics in the media is ongoing.

“It’s very iterative,” she said. “We’re already looking for ways to make our election coverage better.”

That was just last week, and they’ve already found ways to adjust.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (, Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     March 24, 2020, 12:26 p.m.
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