A Leaked Internal Report Reveals The Wall Street Journal Is Struggling With Aging Readers And Covering Race
The report, obtained by BuzzFeed News, was dated the same month that ongoing tensions between news and opinion sections at Rupert Murdoch’s broadsheet spilled into the public.
A brutal internal Wall Street Journal report obtained by BuzzFeed News reveals how the 130-year-old broadsheet is struggling mightily in the current digital and cultural age — such as not covering racial issues because reporters are afraid to mention them to editors, playing to the limited interests of its aging core audience, at times losing more subscribers than it takes in, and favoring “a print edition that lands in the recycling bin.”
The crown jewel of Rupert Murdoch’s media company has weathered months of strife between its news and opinion sections. In July, the same month the report is dated, more than 280 staffers at the Journal and sister newsroom Dow Jones signed a letter to its publisher calling for clearer distinctions between the opinion and news. “Opinion’s lack of fact-checking and transparency, and its apparent disregard for evidence, undermine our readers’ trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources,” the letter said.
This week, the Journal’s news division ran a reported piece that knocked down claims published in an opinion section piece just hours earlier. The opinion piece was trying to connect the dots on a smear alleging corruption by former vice president Joe Biden just days before the presidential election.
The report, which one person at the Journal said was sent to some editors but not the whole newsroom, argues that many of the Wall Street Journal’s editors do not understand the internet and its readers — focusing its content instead on its long-term older male subscribers, rather than on a growing younger audience key to its survival. (Read the report here.)
“Here’s the bottom line: if we want to grow to 5.5 million digital subscribers, and if we continue with churn, traffic and digital growth about where they are today — it will take us on the order of 22 years,” the report reads.
“Oh fuck, wow,” one Journal employee told BuzzFeed News in reaction to these figures. “Speaking honestly, I would say that paints a bleaker picture of the Journal’s competitive position than most rank-and-file employees have been led to believe.”
The employee added, “It seems like the organization is having a come-to-Jesus moment.”
"This is a months-old draft that contains outdated and inaccurate information," Journal Editor-in-Chief Matt Murray said in a statement, without detailing which elements he considers inaccurate. "The Wall Street Journal is experiencing tremendous digital growth in audience, advertising and subscriptions, in fact has hit new records, and we are more excited than ever about our future. We of course regularly discuss and explore what we are doing, and where we should be going. We have a strong foundation as the best source of business, markets and economics news in the world, and we are incredibly proud to serve all of our readers. Our imperative is to make that service even better, and make it available to ever more people around the world. And we will.”
The report, put together by a group of strategy editors from across the newsroom, was a content review of the paper’s output, subscriber numbers, and lack of growth, despite an influx of new readers during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We need to quote more real people in stories,” the report declares, explaining that “real people” — loosely defined as consumers and man-on-the-street types of people — only appear in around one-quarter of WSJ reporting.
The key recommendations include major changes to what the paper covers, how it covers topics, and a rethinking of how it ignores some audiences.
One damning example of how the wider newsroom’s failed to listen to Black readers and its own digital-forward staff came from a spring 2020 project with the National Bar Association, the largest organization for Black legal professionals in the country. New audiences chief Ebony Reed shared WSJ articles with the group and asked them what questions they wanted the outlet to answer. Stories sparked from readers' questions during COVID-19 gained wide audiences and traffic, the report states.
When National Bar Association members responded, she shared those questions with other newsroom editors as possible story ideas. “Story ideas ranged from Black Americans dying at a higher rate from coronavirus to questions about how vaping would affect those who contracted COVID-19,” weeks before similar stories appeared in other publications. “None were acted on,” the report states.
The report’s authors found concerns about diversity within the newsroom, noting that more than 70% of staffers felt the publication’s coverage of race, gender, and identity “did not reflect the diversity of the general public and changing demographic trends.” Reviews of a representative sample of published articles found that nearly two-thirds of quoted sources were white, for example, and that the paper’s prestigious front-page news feature articles, known internally as “leders” rarely had race, gender, or LGBTQ issues as a focus.
“We could cover race and gender more, if we could get reporters more comfortable, and make reports feel they have our support,” the report quotes US news editor Emily Nelson saying. “Reporters self-censor and don’t suggest those stories enough. They’re worried about the scrutiny of how it will be written.”
Internal research shows those most likely to be considering subscribing to the WSJ — a huge growth opportunity — are women, people under 44, and the Black and Latino communities.
Traffic is a huge concern for the paper’s management, whether it be in terms of meeting internal goals or “winning” when it comes to drawing audiences to stories that are competitive with content on other outlets.
The authors illustrate that with the example of an excerpt from former national security adviser John Bolton’s memoir, The Room Where It Happened, which the paper published on June 18. Because the Journal had an exclusive on the portion of the book it was running, it was “positioned to win, including on Google Search,” the report notes. “But we didn’t do as well as well as we could.”
An autopsy of that perceived failure, which compared the paper’s coverage of Bolton’s book to that run by the New York Times and the Washington Post, found four areas of concern, but in particular the fact that there was internal pushback at aggressive coverage.
“Senior editors suggested that the WSJ publish more stories related to the book excerpt, as well as President Trump’s response to it,” the report found. “But those senior editors were told not to, because it would ‘amp up’ the public reaction to the story and the WSJ ‘doesn’t want to amp things up.’ So while the WSJ published four articles (including the excerpt), the NYT published nine (plus three wire stories) and the Washington Post published 21.”
A running theme throughout the report is the tension between the content that the paper is best known for producing — granular coverage of business, finance, and policy — and the topics of interest to the younger readers that the publication’s management desperately wants to woo. In that analysis, the priorities of the paper’s most loyal subscribers, which the report dubs “heavy readers,” should take a definitive back seat, the report recommends.
Heavy readers visit the site at least 10 times a month and make up the large majority of the site’s traffic, and editors have largely catered content to them. Although the WSJ does focus on a wide variety of business, politics, and culture topics — much of its content caters to the wealthy, such as its Mansion coverage.
“The problem is, there are only so many of these hard-core WSJ readers,” reads the report.
By editors focusing on content only for the classic WSJ businessman reader — and ignoring growing online readers who want to converse, share story ideas, and read about broader topics — the paper is limiting its readership, the report finds.
“We must embrace openness and accessibility over a ‘members-only’ mentality that’s reminiscent of secret fraternity handshakes,” the report reads.
The biggest growth area is identified as “light” readers — those who visit any of the paper’s platforms just a few times a month.
To address those appetites, the report recommends beats that focus on the environment, career issues, consumer products, drug addiction, racism, healthcare affordability, income inequality, and violent crime. It acknowledges that such a shift may be jarring to many of the paper’s reporters and editors, who put a high priority on traditional coverage that they feel are core to the paper’s brand.
The report also encourages reporters to focus more on social media in their coverage, both to reach a broader audience and to find new story ideas. “While we don’t plan to regularly report on things like celebrity Twitter wars, there is substantial primary source material on important topics and investigations that we could obtain in social media,” the report says.
“There will be occasions when choosing to pursue new audiences does actually trade off with creating work that our heavy readers enjoy,” the report says. “And in those cases, we strongly recommend prioritizing growth and our future.”
Serving heavy readers “is what holds us back.”
Particularly because those “light” readers, the paper’s future, are unsubscribing at large numbers. “Even as we celebrate conversions each day in the news meeting, we are losing people — often, almost as many people as we are gaining,” the report reveals.
Conversion rates for subscribers — meaning the percentage of visitors who go on to become subscribers after reading an article — has barely changed since early 2017.
One of the biggest errors, the report argues, is the newsroom’s focus on getting out a daily print edition for its long-term subscribers, who are mainly men with an average age of 49, despite print having declined globally across all media organizations for years.
“Too much attention goes to the flow of information parceled out each day and then forgotten, like a print edition that lands in the recycling bin,” it reads. “Not enough attention goes to the living news product that we are adding onto every day. We can be more than a daily edition. We can be a library of expertise.”
The focus on a daily paper affects all aspects of the publishing process. It means that 75% of WSJ stories are “fleeting news,” meaning they only have a short shelf life, although evergreen stories get more views and are more likely to convert subscribers, the report finds.
Stories are also held for the print edition rather than being published online first, which is now commonplace at many news organizations with print editions.
The report says one staffer in May asked, “why can’t we run a story online Wednesday and put it in the paper Saturday? Other publications do this all the time….At present, competitive stories are held for print reasons, which makes no sense to me.”
Many WSJ reporters and editors also either don’t know or don’t care how their stories will appear online because the focus is on the print edition, and declare it someone else’s problem to think in digital formats. That impacts readers — and potential subscribers, who are likely to first encounter the publication via an article page, not the homepage — as “the vast majority of our articles are published without much, if any, oversight from anyone thinking about the digital reader experience of the stories,” the report finds.
“Stop passing the buck,” it reads. “When asked whose responsibility it is to think about visuals, how something will look on mobile, or whether it needs a graphic, the answer seems to often be ‘not me!’”
The report may not have been implemented inside the newsroom, but the WSJ employee told BuzzFeed News that perhaps change will now happen. “It could be that having this out in the public is good for us because I want us to be around for the next 50 years,” they said.