Ain’t no clickbait

How are legacy media fighting with digital competitors for attention? The Wall Street Journal’s innovative work provides some clues



The media landscape has changed. Where once ‘legacy media’ dominated, their traditional territory is being encroached on by social media platforms and online outlets.

We spoke to Carla Zanoni, global head of emerging media for the Wall Street Journal, about her role in engaging new audiences and enriching the experiences of subscribers.

Emerging media are usually associated with younger audiences than with legacy media like WSJ. Is it difficult to adapt your content to bridge this generation gap?

At first we thought that we need to speak to a younger audience in a different way than we would speak to our older audience. But just because somebody is younger doesn’t mean that their IQ is lower. One of the things we’ve learned in publishing to these emerging platforms is that the audience drawn to The Journal – whether it’s, in print or on Snapchat –are drawn to analytical, thoughtful, deeply-reported stories. The difference between, say, Snapchat and print is that it’s a much more visual, multimedia, quick-paced format. Really finding new ways to engage with someone around our core journalism in that format has been the biggest lesson that we’ve learned.

On which platforms is WSJ seeing its greatest growth?

Where we are really seeing growth is the LINE app, which comes out of Japan. Next month we’ll be celebrating two years on the app and we have close to 2.8 million followers. I haven’t seen that kind of growth on social media in many years and this points to an evolution in the general public utilising media tools to communicate. It’s a much more intimate space and it’s something that we’re really focused on in terms of growing. Snapchat, where we publish on the Discover platform, has a messaging app component. We’re able to communicate one-on-one with our readers and with a brand new audience. We included a call out in a story recently and we received more than a thousand responses within the first eight hours of publishing. That’s unprecedented.

We’re able to communicate one-on-one with our readers and with a brand new audience.”

You’ve adopted the title of a “tra-digital journalist”. How has this approach helped WSJ bring traditional journalism to social media platforms?

Some lower-quality sites that are out there may be very smart and fast around digital publishing, but they don’t have the weight of journalism behind them to create a valuable product. At WSJ, we apply some of the same digital prowess when publishing to our quality journalism and have the benefit of reaching a highly engaged and loyal audience of subscribers.

Digital mastery like that, where you have a good user experience through digital and distributing your content throughout all of these different channels, has to be backed up by that weight of journalism. Otherwise nobody’s going to pay for it, nobody’s going to support it, and you wind up with a highly promiscuous audience that reads one story and maybe never comes back to your site.

What’s the role of the audience engagement in covering a breaking news story?

Take the example of a terrorist attack. Basically the audience engagement team has two roles. There is the role of distributing our journalism across all of these different platforms and making sure that as many current subscribers and readers of The Journal receive it as well as making sure a new audience receives it. For many years that was really the primary role of the team. Where things changed is the understanding that we really need people who have specialised skill to do reporting on social media – the people who know how to do social listening, whether that’s finding out clues about the attack before it took place, finding manifestos, finding family members or people who are connected to the assailants or victim.

When an event like that takes place, we make sure that we have one person who is focused on distribution and at least one person working with editors throughout the newsroom to help them with social media reporting. We also work very closely with researchers in our investigative team, whether they’re working on breaking news stories or an enterprise story that has a digital and social media research component. It can be very robust and complex because it’s relatively small team working on combing the infinite web and social state to get relevant information that we’re feeding back to the editors and reporters working on this story.

How does reader data and analytics have a direct effect on engagement and social media growth?

We spend a lot of time doing content deep dive for all these different platforms. But I would say we are data informed but not data driven. It sounds like a platitude but we really are, I can’t stress it enough. Maybe it’s the benefit of having a subscriber base, because we’re very clear that we need to fulfil the needs of those subscribers. We’re investing in a pretty elite and high-minded reader that’s looking for deep analysis and deep reporting.

We’re really not looking for the cheap clicks. We’re looking to invest in a relationship that might be fostered at first on social media and hopefully blooms into a long term-relationship on our site. The more we understand about our audience, the less the urge for sensational stories that don’t meet our standards and match our ethos.

You mentioned before the Japanese app LINE. Is increased engagement with Asian audiences a key strategy for WSJ?

Yes absolutely. It is part of our commercial and editorial strategy to reach a larger audience in Asia. It’s been really fascinating to see not only follower count growth but also engagement and to start understanding some of the nuances between an audience that’s connecting with us on that platform versus some of our other platforms. What we’re finding is that this is an audience that’s interested in globally-focused news with a US perspective. We’ve also found that our audience, online but also surprisingly on Facebook, come to us because they don’t have other spaces where they can get unbiased reporting.

We’ve done a lot of reporting over the past two years about the 1MDB-linked Malaysia government scandal, and our Facebook analytics tell us that we have this tremendous Malaysia audience which comes to us for news about Malaysia and this government scandal. We see similar trends in our audience in India, Pakistan and Indonesia. It’s really exciting to us because we know that the value of our journalism is recognised globally and these are the new tools to reach these readers.

Has your own role changed with the developments in the emerging media?

When I first arrived, the team that I inherited was focused only on social media. In the two years since I’ve been here I’ve built out that team to have four pillars: audience engagement, who are now looking at reporting and social media distribution; newsroom analytics, which helps us have a more refined understanding of our audience; audience development, which is SEO and digital optimisation; and emerging platforms, which includes Snapchat Discover, the Facebook Messenger bot and work on Amazon Echo and so on. The introduction of these new tools really started shifting and shaping this group to have a laser-like focus on what the next way to reach a new audience might be. In some ways social media already set us up for that new way of thinking.

Is the WSJ brand worth less in a digital environment as opposed to a time when traditional media dominated the landscape?

User and reader behaviours have changed but the strength, standards and ethics behind our journalism coupled with the advances we’ve made in understanding our audience regarding what they need and want, both in terms of the journalism we provide and how we provide it to them, makes it more valuable. In the past, journalism as a whole offered one product and basically said, “This is the only way that you can get your news.” We now understand that it’s important to meet our readers wherever they are without cheapening our core journalism value proposition. We still have readers who enjoy us in print. But that same reader may also enjoy us on their iPad, their mobile phone, their desktop at work and on social media throughout the day.

Getting on LINE

In 2015, LINE overtook Snapchat as the fastest-growing global social media app, growing by 59 per cent to Snapchat’s 45, according to Global Web Index. It boasts 215 million downloads, 212 million of which use it every month. LINE has also had success in monetising itself — App Annie ranks it the No. 1 company in terms of revenue from iOS and Google Play outside gaming, largely off of sticker sales. The Economist, BBC and Mashable and other publishers have recently climbed aboard LINE as part of their social media strategy, but WSJ is ahead of the crowd terms of numbers and longevity. And brands eager to gain a younger Asian market need to get on LINE: 60 per cent of its user base is in Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and Taiwan. Asia’s mature messaging platform market is unmatched, largely because technology has developed in a more mobile-first way. In Europe and North America, digital consumers still rely more on their desktop computers. Thanks to fully functioning service platforms, opportunities for personalisation with LINE are abundant, with extensive meta data on location, travel and bank details. However, analytics remain scarce, and gauging reach and tracking referrals remain a challenge.

Carla Zanoni

Carla Zanoni is the global head of emerging media for the Wall Street Journal, where she is responsible for exploring and developing state-of-the-art news delivery and storytelling, including new social media and mobile platforms. She also heads the newsroom's audience development team, focusing on engagement and newsroom analytics. Before joining the Journal, Carla led national digital and social strategy at in New York and Chicago and worked as an award-winning metro reporter for more than 15 years, writing for numerous publications and helping to launch the first newspaper dedicated to New York City politics.