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Saturday, April 16, 2005

WSJ.com Looks Like a Successful Online News Business Model to Me!

For years, just about everybody and anybody thinking about and working in online news and the MSM has been trying to figure out an "economic model that works." How do you move news and advertising from the dead trees to the Internet?

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal made the decision early on to do what nobody thought was possible - charge people to read the online edition. Literally no other MSM or Internet-based news operation has been successful with the subscription strategy on a mass basis. So why has it worked so well that WSJ.com now has more subscribers than the dead tree edition?

The Professor has a lengthy interview up with WSJ.com managing editor Bill Grueskin that is chock full of insights, common sense and points worth pondering. Consider just this sample in an exchange regarding Grueskin's observation that online success requires knowing who you think your readers ought to be, not just who they are, but not forgetting who your dead tree readers are, either:

"Bill Grueskin: You're right. The 'balancing act' approach disappoints new online readers and fails to excite print readers making the transition. So you have to come up with a new language of journalism, with traditional roots in our standards, but that treats online like the revolutionary medium that it is. And then you have to hammer it home with your staff.
"Here's a real-time example. I'm writing this response at 2 pm on a Friday, April 8th. The best-read story on WSJ.com at the moment is an exclusive Page One Journal piece about how Warren Buffett provided a key tip in the AIG investigation.

"Down the list a bit is the Online Journal's latest survey of nearly 60 economists; it includes an interactive graphic and tons of downloadable data. Next is a richly reported story from the paper about a Wal-Mart executive fired for allgedly defrauding his firm.
"Then comes an online-only column by Carl Bialik, WSJ.com's "Numbers Guy" who looks at how US News' new law-school rankings could affect minority admissions.
"That, to me, is a perfect most-popular list. Our readers are clicking back and forth between print stories that showcase the best of the Journal and online columns and graphics that make the most of the medium.
"Jay Rosen: It almost sounds like you're talking about just-in-time journalism.
"Bill Grueskin: Here's another example, this one from a Wednesday morning last February: Hewlett-Packard announces that it has asked CEO Carly Fiorina to resign. This is a huge story for WSJ.com: H-P is high-tech, Fiorina is high-profile, and most importantly, the news breaks after the morning's paper.

"Our newsroom goes all out, blending reporting from Journal reporters, Dow Jones newswire staff and our own people, updating the main story 15 to 20 times that day before the paper’s final Page One piece comes in late that night.
"A few days later, I looked at the total traffic to the main story, from Wednesday morning until Thursday night. It turns out that about 75% of the traffic came during Wednesday. By Thursday, when the paper's story appeared in its full form, most of our readers had moved on."

The Professor's observation that what Grueskin describes sounds almost like "just-in-time journalism" is an allusion to the automotive production strategy perfected by Toyota in which suppliers are required to provide parts "just-in-time" to allow the factory to build cars and trucks that customers order without having to maintain an incredibly inefficient and expensive warehouse onsite. The customer orders are constantly updated, so that the flow of parts is constantly changing, which means the suppliers and the factory must constantly adjust to the pull-demand from customers, not push-demand one-size-fits-all products.

It's not an exact analogy but it's good enough. The point is that online news must always be current and it must always be available when the customer wants it, not when the provider wants to provide it. The Internet makes that possible, but it also requires building a completely new newsroom culture that retains the traditional skills required to be accurate as well as new skills to be timely.

It's a lengthy interview and the Professor's usual format includes a wealth of "After Matter" that is as interesting and useful as the interview itself. Don't miss it.