Wall Street Journal publisher warns media brands must personalise news to survive

The publisher of the Wall Street Journal has warned that “great media brands might not survive” if they do not embrace greater personalisation of news for their readers.

William Lewis, who is also chief executive of WSJ publisher Dow Jones, part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, described how the company is “proactively responding” to the “personalisation crisis”.

The former Telegraph editor added that it was a “crisis every other news organisation should be responding to as well — if they still want to be around in five years, that is”.

News Corp announced on Friday that the WSJ had surpassed 2m digital subscriptions for the first time following digital subscriber growth of 13 per cent in the last quarter of 2019.

Giving the inaugural Marjorie Deane Lecture at City University to journalism students and journalists including ITV political editor Robert Peston and BBC editorial director Kamal Ahmed last night, Lewis described how Dow Jones has developed a “strong sense of purpose”.

“Everyone at Dow Jones knows what they stand for and why they come into work, and that purpose is to give people the facts they need in an age of misinformation,” he said.

“But to grow at the pace we’ve grown, to really fulfil that purpose, to take our brilliant Pulitzer prize-winning journalism to bigger, broader audiences, we’ve actually moved away from the very idea of the ‘audience’.

“Instead, we’ve become obsessively focused on the reader as an individual.”

Lewis said the WSJ has “wholeheartedly embraced” readers’ demand for personalisation and that if other media companies did not do the same, there would be a disaster for democracy of their own making.

He added: “…at Dow Jones, we see the personalisation crisis not as a disaster, but as an exciting opportunity.

“But I look around at many other news organisations and I do see a disaster in the making: a disaster for them and their survival and, bigger than that, a disaster for democracy.

“In many ways, if this crisis — this turning point — does play out as a disaster, it will be a disaster of the media’s own making. A disaster borne of arrogance and inattention to the huge, disruptive changes in readers’ expectations of us as journalists.

“We face a situation where great media brands might not survive because they’re still clinging to the old idea that they, not their readers, are the ones in charge.”

The Wall Street Journal has had a hard paywall since 1996 but in 2018 introduced a “dynamic” element that decides how many stories each reader should get for free before they are asked to pay, based on their behaviour on site.

In a performance update published on Friday, News Corp said about 57 per cent of Dow Jones’ consumer circulation revenues are now from digital after a four per cent growth in total revenues in the last quarter of 2019.

News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson said: “There is a strong and growing appetite for factual, fair and deeply reported journalism, and our latest subscription and financial results demonstrate how well Dow Jones, the Journal and our other publications and products are serving that vital public need.”

More than three-quarters of 200 international digital media professionals surveyed for last year’s Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions report said they expected increased personalisation of news services to be important for the future, with artificial intelligence playing a significant role.

Picture: Dow Jones

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