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  1. Media Business
May 16, 2024updated 06 Jun 2024 1:46pm

WSJ editor Emma Tucker on how publishers can protect themselves from AI challenge

WSJ boss on preparing for "seismic" shift in media landscape with arrival of generative AI.

By Charlotte Tobitt

Wall Street Journal editor Emma Tucker has revealed the business newsbrand is “faring well but we’re not complacent”.

Tucker, who took the top job at the WSJ in February last year after three years leading The Sunday Times, said she believes it is “it’s very important that we fix the roof while the sun is shining” due to the changes coming from the rise of AI-produced content online.

Since Tucker’s arrival the Wall Street Journal newsroom has seen a number of job cuts and other restructuring including to its Washington DC bureau.

Speaking at the Sir Harry Summit in London on Wednesday, Tucker said: “I think the changes that are coming down the line for media are going to be even more seismic than the original shift from print to digital. I think the shift that we’re now going to face with AI is going to be huge and so the Wall Street Journal is getting itself in shape for that future so that it won’t just survive, it will actually thrive.

“And the key to that is making sure that we are producing journalism that people are willing to pay for. Because I think back in the day, in the print days, a lot of people perhaps weren’t even paying for the news when they bought a newspaper. They were paying for the crossword or whatever. But now we know very much what people are willing to pay for so we have to do news that is worth it.”

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Subscriptions at the Wall Street Journal have reached 4.2 million (up 8% year-on-year in the first three months of 2024), of which 3.7 million are digital-only (up 13%). This is up 62% compared to the subscription figure reported in August 2019.

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At Dow Jones, the section of News Corp within which the Wall Street Journal sits, revenues in the most recent quarter were up by $15m or 3% year-on-year. Circulation and subscription revenues were up 4% but advertising was down 2% “primarily due to an 11% decline in print advertising revenues partly offset by 4% growth in digital advertising revenues”.

[Read more: Dow Jones, NYT, Dotdash Meredith and Informa confound news business doomsters]

Asked by panel host BBC News analysis editor Ros Atkins about subscriptions making up for lost advertising revenue, Tucker said: “You’re absolutely right – advertising in digital doesn’t even come close to replicating the print ad model. But the key for us is our subscription model and subscriptions are growing, our churn rates are down, the numbers are good. And we’re doing that by making sure we’re giving people original, distinctive, quality journalism that they can trust.”

Wall Street Journal editor Emma Tucker: ‘I don’t want us to be scrambling to catch up’

Last year Tucker jokingly told staff “we don’t want to be the German car industry of news publishing” referring to the fact companies like Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes were lagging behind on electric vehicles.

Asked about this by Atkins, she suggested a better analogy would have been “people who were making horse and carts in the 1910s”.

But she added: “The point is we could happily sit back and just carry on doing what we’ve always done. The Journal is a hugely successful newspaper and Dow Jones is a very successful company. We could just sit there and carry on doing what we’ve always done. But one day we would wake up and the entire model would have gone… I don’t want The Journal to be scrambling to catch up.”

Tucker, who was wearing an #IStandWithEvan badge in reference to the WSJ reporter Evan Gershkovich who has been imprisoned in Russia for more than a year, later said that in the world of AI-generated content there are two key things publishers can do to protect themselves.

“I think given that we don’t know what the lay of the land is going to be in five, ten years there are two crucial things for publishers to focus [on]: what do we do that’s irreplaceable? What do we do that a machine can’t do? And there’s plenty there for the Wall Street Journal.

“And the other thing is to really focus on the relationship that you as a publisher have directly with your readers, rather than thinking that these platforms are… going to help, or save you or kill you or whatever. It’s that focus on the relationship you have with your readers and do your best within those confines.”

Publishers like the Wall Street Journal “can’t not” talk to the platforms, she added, but “we can’t control them. They decided they were interested in news and then they decided they weren’t and a lot of publishers who got into bed with them and were relying on them to send the traffic were left high and dry.”

Emma Tucker: Manchester Mill is ‘very clever’

Tucker also praised Mill Media, the Substack newsletter start-up founded by Joshi Herrmann in Manchester in 2020 and then Liverpool, Birmingham and Sheffield. Last year it received financial backing from the likes of CNN chief executive Sir Mark Thompson and Axios publisher Nicholas Johnston.

Tucker said: “What he’s doing is incredibly smart… He’s identified an audience. He knows exactly who that audience is and he’s hyper-targeting them with…. journalism that they find useful, and therefore they’re coming back.”

She added: “I think it’s a very, very clever thing that they’ve done. And I think the future of journalism, a lot of journalism, will be built around these very, very engaged audiences – Manchester, American capitalism, you name it. There’s a real advantage in digital in having that specialism.”

Mill Media’s four titles now have more than 100,000 readers on their email mailing lists, of whom 7,000 are paying subscribers, Herrmann announced in March.

Herrmann, who was also on the panel, described what Mill Media does differently in UK local news: “My feeling when I started it was that British news has become too focused on incremental news updates. I think we have a very news heavy media.

“In the US, you have magazines that have a long tradition of doing more in-depth journalism. And it’s not just good because it’s in-depth information. It’s in-depth in the sense that it gives you an emotional connection to the people involved – The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the New York mag – and I wanted to bring a little bit of that American-style reporting here.

“And I think that has given us just a bit of a sense of an edge with a sense of I can only get this journalism from The Mill, I can’t get it from the other local paper. So there’s a little bit of an extra element there. And the lovely thing is people seem to want to pay for that kind of journalism – Tina Brown journalism, let’s call it,” he said, referring to the organiser of the conference, the widow of Sir Harry and renowned journalist in her own right.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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