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Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Social? Not The Wall Street Journal
Posted on February 10th 2012
I’ve been in publishing since before fax machines, and like many veterans of old media, I’ve seen technology rip the living heart out of those great institutions that came of age with moveable type. For the most part, the leaders of those newspaper and magazine companies, as well as their newer broadcast brethren, have been caught on the horns of a dilemma: how to adapt to all this new-fangled stuff, and worse, what strategy or strategist to trust when, if truth be told, much of the utility of the web and more recently, social media, is obscured by a lot of what appears to be total mumbo-jumbo to the non-technological executive. All too often I’ve seen a top manager seduced by a magic bullet that will supposedly propel the media company to success in the face of competition like, at first, Yahoo and AOL, then Google, and now Facebook.
Mark Fishkin, Vice President, Digital Sales at the Wall Street Journal, is not the sort of guy who would try to persuade the boardroom that he has that scheme, or that he has been to the mountain top and has the Digitally Received Truth. Far from it. Mark is the kind of guy who will coolly calculate the real business advantages of a product extension and move forward with a bet hedged here, and one hedged there, until the operant pattern appears.
This venerable business newspaper has always been shrewd about how to monetize its assets online. Among the first sites to charge for its content, The WSJ.com has adapted to the current hybrid model from a position of subscription-based strength. Currently, the WSJ Online boasts 1.3 M paid subscribers on 50M average monthly visitors. Although there are various pricing packages, a standard, Digital-Plus subscription price is $207 annually; either way you count, that’s a lot of paid revenue. Moreover, The Journal, unlike say The New York Times, is “print-profitable,” and has delved into new platforms with a more incremental, profit-focused approach than its rivals.
But it also creates a special urgency to make certain that the digital, and now tablet and mobile experience, stays current with user expectations. WSJ.com is adding new forms and formats for content, like mobile devices and tablets. The dividing line between paid and free content, as well, now moves with the greatest consideration given to platform. Tweets on your phone from your favorite Journal reporter are free, for example, but to access the full WSJ article that appears on your news reader will still cost you.
The Journal’s Facebook “wake-up call” came through over a year ago when its “Tiger Mother” story broke over 50,000 comments on Facebook, more than in the online Journal. Not exactly the same sort of story as, say, Stephen Schwartzman’s next major move, but still, a clear indication of the social network’s value in generating engagement. Fishkin noticed. “A story like Tiger Mother comes along so often, and the number of reactions on Facebook belie the site’s sharing DNA. We had lots of sharing on WSJ.com as well, but obviously not at the same scale.” But the Journal’s Facebook approach is more centered on its own writers than the Post’s; on the Facebook social app you can elect to follow Kara Swisher or many of its star personnel (including Mark Fishkin) as well as your friends.
Fishkin is taking a more cautious approach for Facebook monetization. The new Facebook app allows access to Journal content “for a limited time,” unspecified, which will allow the Journal a way to fairly test Facebook’s utility – including the Journal’s ability to monetize the Facebook ad with advertising -- by offering users significant content benefits. Fishkin wisely notes that while it’s “up to publishers” what to do about Facebook, the reader experience “needs to be additive,” not just a new place to access the same old content.
With nearly a third of the entire display advertising market, Facebook is offering publishers like the Journal an unavoidable bargain with the devil. Find new readers, extend the brand all you want, but here at Facebook we’re keeping the front-line relationship with – and the data extracted from – the customer. Facebook’s ability to garner enormous amounts of data was frequently noted by analysts last week as a propelling value for the company in the future, and will presumably offer the Journal’s own advertisers fertile marketing offerings created, in part, with the help of Journal content. It should be noted, however, that in our wide-ranging interviews over several days, Fishkin did not wish to discuss Facebook’s consumer data capabilities.
Fishkin is adamant about one place the Journal will never go: allowing advertisers to access its editorial content stream with sponsored blogging, as Forbes has recently. I asked him if allowing sponsored content to enter the CMS (Content Management System) was the same as breaching the wall “between church and state.” He replied, “We know that in today’s day and age, all advertisers have become content producers. They need large, engaged audiences that publishers offer in order to distribute that content. We believe, however, that our editorial well is sacrosanct, and our users would not be served by our ‘publishing’ client content. At no point can our user be confused about the source of the content on our sites.”
Of all the various new digital initiatives, Fishkin is clearly proudest of the foray into the Wall Street Journal (“WSJ Live”) video. “When you think about the digital eco-systems,” he notes, “and all the networks, videos’ ubiquity will be really important for a lot of digital influencers.” The New York Times noted last week in a column about internet media companies launching into digital that WSJ Live, which can stream on both internet-connected tv sets as well as tablets and pc’s, is “a trail-blazer” of this nascent industry.
Not to be confused with Fox Business, which is an entirely separate business, WSJ Live is part of You-Tube’s Content Partners Program. It has, just since its launch in September 2011, grown to over 8 M monthly streams network-wide. Lively and “real-time,” with Skype interviews and other slimmed-down productions conducted by the Journal’s experienced reporters, WSJ Live is producing over 1,000 hours of video each month, up to 5 hours a day. WSJ Live is also attracting a late-night crowd, with internal data showing that a large number of viewers are streaming after 9 pm at night on their iPads. WSJ television has opened Journal content to a whole new slew of 30-second, video advertisers, like Liberty Mutual, Lexus, AT&T and Fidelity, with richer creative offerings for its traditional base of business-focused marketers. And as the Times article noted, the CPMs for video are traditionally higher than for digital.
Liberated from the old high-cost structure of video, really smart journalists can now become “on-air talent,” and on the consumer side, we users can have regular contact with the thinking side of the news. For those of you like me, who used to be Louis Rukeyser or Washington Week in Review junkies, being able to access, on-demand, a talented print journalist and a newsmaker is one of the decided pluses of long-tail publishing. Although the six-month old audience for the WSJ Live app has yet to be profiled, expect to see significant influence accrue to this kind of thinking consumer.
The Facebook app is being monetized as well, in keeping with the Journal’s clear-eyed view of sustainability in the social communications era. Dell, the launch sponsor, as well as Lexus, appear with logos and banner units when you load social.wsj.com. This is a different approach to what The Washington Post, for example, is doing with The Washington Post Social Reader, which has yet to directly monetize the app. As Fishkin states, “At the end of the day we have two fantastic revenue streams that keeps us afloat.” In the face of various gales blowing in big media, Fishkin is decidedly calm. “Our success has allowed us to weather storms.”