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Feb. 9, 2021, 10:29 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The Wall Street Journal says it wants to help readers identify opinion pieces — but the campaign’s real audience may be its own newsroom

The campaign reflects an “increasingly digital” readership, including new subscribers without the experience of holding clearly separated news and opinion sections in their hands.

There’s an old joke at The Wall Street Journal that subscribers get “two newspapers for the price of one.” One is produced by the Journal’s business-focused newsroom and the other by the paper’s right-leaning opinion section.

The tension between the two is longstanding but the dispute became unprecedentedly public in 2020. Nearly 300 news staffers criticized their editorial counterparts’ “lack of fact-checking and transparency” in a note to the publisher. They pointed, in particular, to an op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence (“There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave'” in June), cherry-picked statistics and “misinformation” in  “The Myth of Systemic Racism,” and “basic factual inaccuracies about taxes” in “Congress Is Coming for Your IRA,” among other examples. The opinion section responded publicly, in “a note to readers,” claiming the newsroom’s frustration was an example of “progressive cancel culture.” The public back-and-forth was described as part of an “ongoing civil war” playing out at multiple news organizations controlled — as The Wall Street Journal is — by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

It was more than bickering. The news staffers said the opinion department’s “apparent disregard for evidence undermine[s] our readers’ trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources” and noted false and misleading claims have risked the safety of journalists at home and abroad. The news staffers’ very first proposal? Making the differences “between reporting and Opinion” at The Wall Journal unmistakably clear, especially to those reading the Journal online.

Enter: The Wall Street Journal News Literacy Initiative. The campaign — produced in partnership with the nonprofit News Literacy Project — puts the words of editor in chief Matthew Murray and editorial page editor Paul A. Gigot side by side and highlights how the Journal labels news and opinion pieces online. (That goldish brown appears to be the opinion color; The Washington Post has adopted a similar hue to label its editorial pieces, too.)

By underlining the bright line between its news and opinion sections, the Journal is seeking to protect one of its most valuable assets: its position as one of the few news sources both sides of the aisle tend to agree on. Pew found last year that the Journal is one of just three news organization trusted more than distrusted by both Republicans and Democrats; the other two are PBS and the BBC.

Suzi Watford, the chief marketing officer at The Wall Street Journal, said the campaign is also a reflection of the fact that the Journal’s business is “increasingly digital.” Of 3.22 million subscriptions — up 19% from 2019 — 2.46 million are digital-only, according to quarterly results released last week. (Watford said the news organization saw new subscribers and a surge of engagement from existing readers amid the market madness of GameStop. “It’s Journal gold, isn’t it?”)

The difference between news and opinion is fairly apparent in print — you’re holding one section or the other — but Watford says their reader research indicates that new readers may be less likely to appreciate the difference.

“We’re very conscious of those new audiences and wanting to make sure they understand what makes the Wall Street Journal and what the differences between news and opinion are — and more generally, why you can trust our news so much,” Watford said.

Watford said they’ll continue to test new ways of displaying — and differentiating — opinion content, particularly for readers “coming in sideways” via links on social media. They’re thinking about giving areas, such as ethical standards, their own microsite in the future.

“You’re not necessarily coming to the homepage where everything is clearly delineated in terms of sections,” Watford pointed out. “That’s always been there and it was very much translated through print. We’ll continue to test, get feedback, and improve upon that.”

POSTED     Feb. 9, 2021, 10:29 a.m.
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