The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal had a challenging but exciting 2020. In my third annual look at these papers of record, Iet’s cover subscriptions and products before turning to editorial.
Having hit its own target of a million subscribers one year early in 2019, the FT put on more digital subscribers during the pandemic – the UK Press Gazette says it hit 945,000 digital subscribers in Q3, with combined print and digital subscribers of 1.1m. But so far it looks like the Journal has had the better crisis in terms of subscribers: from just 1.5m digital subscribers in January 2019, it got up to 2.35m by the end of September, plus 750,000 print subscribers.
The complexity of the papers’ digital and app options, such as FT Premium, makes it hard to compare pricing. The FT is clearly a more expensive product and has perhaps become more so, due to WSJ discounting. The FT’s pricing is close to double the WSJ at certain comparison points. The Journal’s much larger home market gives it more latitude to pursue a mass affluent strategy as the US’s ‘centre-right’ national newspaper, whereas the FT sees itself as a premium product for a global elite. The FT was again named the most trustworthy media brand by the Ipsos Global Business Influencers survey.
Both papers have been heavily tweaking what they do to drive engagement. The Journal’s Project Habit – described as “subscriptions science” – is all about identifying retention-building actions and promoting habits to subscribers, such as downloading the mobile app or subscribing to a newsletter.
The Journal is in the midst of considerable cultural change, as it drives more interaction between its journalists, advertising staff, tech people, data scientists and marketers, in order to develop appealing propositions. Its mantra is “focus on the MACU”, meaning Members, Audiences, Customers and Users. Louise Story, who runs the Digital Experience & Strategy group, is pushing back on unnecessarily siloed thinking (traditionally rationalised by need to prevent commercial pressure on editorial).
Story stresses the importance of “creating a common vocabulary” (you can imagine how some old-time reporters like that) and the need for cross-disciplinary teams to improve products based on MACU.
New products at the WSJ this year include Noted, a monthly digital “news and culture” magazine for 18-34 year-olds, with content on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. The Journal revamped its Pro products team (its bankruptcy newsletter is very hot), and invested in newswires hubs in Barcelona and Singapore.
The Journal has certainly been making more effort to tell its own story, getting its low-profile editor Matt Murray out more, though hardly on a Lionel Barber scale. Murray did a widely distributed, hour long audio conference call on the Journal’s Covid handling in May.
Both papers saw big increases in usage during 2020, with FT website traffic up 250%. The Coronavirus tracker was the most viewed page. The FT is proud of its award-winning Wirecard reporting, the culmination of a five year investigation. Although the Journal had a fairly modest awards year by its standards, with only two Pulitzers, scoops included the blockbuster S&P–IHS Markit merger.
The Journal has an institutionally separate editorial page (whose editor has been there 19 years), which has come under fire for over-friendly Trump coverage. The impact of this controversy on the broader paper feels limited.
The Journal is continuing efforts to soften its image. It has talked of the need for more diverse sources, saying: “The corporate or political position, expertise or professional stature of our sources does and should dictate whom we choose to reference…That practice isn’t in conflict with a goal to further diversify our source base…we are conscious in our reporting of seeking out as sources people of different genders, races, religions, sexual orientation, geographic base and economic circumstance.”
That’s a significant shift. Black Lives Matter is impacting the FT as well – its recruitment campaign emphasises its desire for diverse backgrounds, and it’s just appointed its first US labour and equality correspondent. The WSJ’s new Audiences group has a big focus on an initiative around professional women. Both papers are running financial literacy campaigns.
At the FT, the newsletter range for Premium subscribers continues to deepen, with new products including Trade Secrets and TechAsia, and with the daily Due Diligence increasing its reach. It is early days for the FT’s subscription partnership with the Washington Post. For the FT, few new products are likely to replicate the financial clout of its luxury magazine How to Spend It, which on my calculations brought in over £1.5 million a week in advertising in December.
Both papers successfully shifted events online, such as FT Weekend, WSJ Tech Live and the WSJ’s Newsmakers CEO Summit, but all this is a really a holding operation in financial terms.
Clients have asked how journalist behaviour and priorities have changed this year. Reporters have been busier than ever (the WSJ’s editor talked of journalist productivity being ‘much higher’), but most have been conscious of the need to guard against temptation of working from home transforming into reporting only news that comes to them. Journalists still want to tap new sources, uncover things and learn about stuff that may not be immediate stories. It’s possible to get them to meet new companies and new spokespeople, though you need a compelling case. This is an acceleration of existing trends for time-poor journalists.
Most importantly, both papers are trying to sharpen how they use outside experts in an environment where much conventional wisdom has come unstuck. This has led to more scepticism about experts/thought leaders, and “content” generally. In its essential monthly column on its editing process, the WSJ said: “Critics and experts are two of The Wall Street Journal’s favorite catch-all terms, and that isn’t good. They are broad and vague and often not backed up. Experts are sometimes self-appointed and sometimes of dubious provenance... Instead, always be specific — Instead of just experts, better to say market strategists or scientists who specialize in the area.”
On institutional bias, it added: “Whether or not we like it, academia and think tanks are now often politicized, even as they often take pains to declare themselves as nonpartisan. Again, disclose and be specific.”
Linked to this is more stress on on-the-record sources, to a point. The Journal’s journalist guide says “on-the-record sources are always preferable because they can be held personally accountable for what they say... In limited cases where we determine a person’s identity should be protected, we take pains to indicate in our coverage where his or her biases might lie.”
Given the dreary ubiquity of “fake news”, big news outlets have become much more conscious of the need to market the quality of their journalism. Yet the WSJ and the FT like to keep a certain flexibility and mystery, not least because they must sometimes act fast. Divining how they tick still has an element of Kremlinology. There’s no substitute for getting as much time with journalists as they will give, and listening to them carefully on Twitter (especially the FT).
The online resources they offer into their process, such as the WSJ’s Style & Substance blog and the FT’s editorial code, are always worth reading.
The FT code (updated in June) is fascinating. It says that “nearly always”, there should be no recording without consent. The guide delightfully informs its staff that “Employees who feel their shorthand is not up to speed should request shorthand training, which is provided by FT to staff free of charge.”
On that note – – or “see you next year” for those still in need of refresher.
Andrew Marshall is Cognito’s vice chairman