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October 25, 2014

The Newsonomics of WSJ Live

First published at Nieman Journalism Lab

It’s news. It’s video. It’s a streaming tablet product that’s this week’s #1 free news app in Apple’s App Store.

And it’s The Wall Street Journal — founded in 1889.

WSJ Live, launched last week, is a milestone product. It’s not Fox News. It’s not CNN. It’s not New York Times news video. WSJ Live is its own thing, and a model for the news industry. Newspaper companies can talk the talk of becoming multimedia companies, but most are still text-bound. WSJ Live is a news video product that does a great job of leveraging the new technologies of the day and converging them to create an easy-on-the-eyes, easy-to-use new consumer product.

Notice, first, that WSJ Live is a tablet product — or more precisely a “lean-back” product, available not only on your iPad or your Galaxy Tab but aiming to get in early on “connected TV” platforms. If you want WSJ news video, you can access it on WSJ.com and on your smartphone. WSJ Live, though, understands that the tablet is today’s go-to platform for this kind of news experience.

It leverages the tablet-sized screen well. It mixes on-the-hour scheduled programming with on-demand access. It balances the talking heads of its global reporting workforce, via Skype, with anchor-hosted programs (News Hub), photo stills, and graphics. It is faster-paced than most news video, with some of the print-reporter geekiness at least acceptable and often enjoyable compared to the slick, no-surprise, Wolf Blitzer-me-to-sleep monotony of cable news. Within the business news world, it sits somewhere between the casualness of American Public Media’s Marketplace and CNBC’s button-down coverage.

Much of the action is set in the combined Journal/Fox/News Corp. building on the Avenue of the Americas in Midtown. The merging print/video setups there are found in few other newsrooms in the world, one of which would have to be El Tiempo, a largely unheralded multimedia leader in Bogota. WSJ Live is touchable in navigation, using the increasingly familiar ribbon (NPR, Pulse, HuffPo Glider) for navigation.

It acts on two of three parts of what I’ve called the Tablet Trifecta — mobile, video, and social. Those three phenomenon, each too often considered separately as audience or revenue categories by news business people, are what makes the tablet a truly phenomenal product. We watch video wherever we are, comfortably, and then with a touch share video with friends and associates. The tablet is a product that is natively viral.

WSJ Live, of course, is a video product on the mobile tablet. For now, it lacks simple social sharing, the little arrow we’ve come to see as standard issue on mobile products. The Journal’s Alan Murray tells me the arrow will soon make its appearance, socializing the product.

As good as it is out of the box, WSJ Live is clearly an evolutionary product. It evolved from the Journal’s fledgling efforts. Consider this: Two years ago, the Journal did not offer any regular live webcasting. “A year ago, we did an hour a day,” says Murray, executive editor for online. Today, the full-time video staff of “fewer than 20,” supports a minimum of 3.5 hours of five-day-a-week programming, comprised of seven 30-minute shows and then chunked into discrete segments.

Today, it is a major business line, with more than seven million video streams served per month (pre-WSJ Live), according to Murray.

That’s a steep ramp, and one still meeting the challenge (the biggest in Murray’s assessment) of “getting the reporting staff trained and comfortable presenting to a camera.” Journalists go through a one-week training course; one’s underway this week.

When we look at the newsonomics of WSJ Live, we see these key factors:

  • The product enables the Journal to be a magnet for top branded video ads.The Journal’s built a good new revenue stream on news video advertising — with effective cost-per-thousand rates of $50 plus, often well priced over text-adjacent ads. “[It's] our most valuable inventory and is heavily sold through across all our platforms,” Alisa Bowen, general manager of the Wall Street Journal Digital Network, told me. “So generating more video inventory is a priority. eMarketer forecasts a more than tripling of U.S. digital video revenue between this year and 2015, from $2.16 billion to $7.15 billion; it’s by far the fastest-growing digital ad segment. Those who create top-drawer products will get a lot of that stream. The main ads are the usual 15-second pre-rolls, but display ads also punctuate the ribbons that provide navigation; tastefully small but effective Fidelity and Aetna ads were populating the site earlier this week. The video ads aren’t optional. They are more TV — meaning intrusive — in nature. They appear suddenly and you have to watch them to get to the content. At this point, there aren’t that many, but the change in ad approach marks a new era.
  • WSJ Live acts on an aggregation principle. In the Journal’s case, it leverages internal aggregation, mainly from the wider Dow Jones, Marketwatch, and AllThingsD staffs. That’s a big benefit. Its platform could allow it to bring in other third-party video. Producing three and a half hours a day of news video seems like a lot now, but I think we’ll all find it amusing five years from now to recall that the 2011 product proudly touted “see all 33 business videos.” (Can you imagine: “527 stories included in today’s edition!”). It’s worth noting two other, quite-different-from-one-another news video aggregators. Reuters Insider, which debuted a year ago as a business-to-business product aimed at the financial services industry, created a great news video aggregation model. Newsy, with its unorthodox, but model-making general news aggregation, product, is making headway, especially as tablets thunder off the assembly line.
  • It’s a (big) niche product. The Journal, extensions to national/world news notwithstanding, is a business news product. Promise me I can find out about what is ticking in the business world, instantly and with first-hour analysis, and I know I can rely on a single place for business news. In fact, since it’s audio and video, I can leave it on in the background, multi-tasking away. And I can stop and start it, much easier than TV.
  • It’s aimed at the future, not the past. In addition to tablet availability, WSJ Live is available via “Boxee, Etisalat, Panasonic’s VIERA Connect-enabled HDTVs, Samsung 2011 Smart TVs, Sony Internet TV, VIZIO Internet Apps HDTVs, and the Yahoo! Connected TV platform.” More distribution outlets will be added soon.
  • It’s a free product. The ad money is so good that Journal has made WSJ Live free. That’s part of its longstanding freemium approach to paid content, allowing a porous wall, since adapted by its arch-competitor, the New York Times. Both Bowen and Murray note that paid video models may later develop.

Maybe it’s that freeness that decided the Journal on providing only three text links to its “front page” news stories, and none directly from its videos. Which, if you think about it, is odd. It’s WSJ Live, but in video, with print reporters talkingabout stories they’ve written or will write — but with few links to the stories. (Rather, anchors often say: “Go to WSJ.com for more.”) If the Journal provided those links, how would it charge for access — paid access that currently generates more than $100 million in digital circulation revenue? That’s TBD.

There are lots of kinks to work out and think through. For instance:

  • Brand: WSJ as the overall brand is a good decision. The Journal stands for business and subsuming Marketwatch and AllThingsD video under it makes sense. There’s WSJ Live itself and then there’s “News Hub,” “Digits,” and “The Big Interview,” among others, a learning lexicon curve for customers. Time may itself lead consumers to that understanding, or WSJ may decide to simplify, or nest, the brands differently.
  • That social thing. WSJ will connect up this product with the social web, building on concepts we see in this week’s WSJ Social launch. (See “With WSJ Social, the Wall Street Journal is rethinking distribution of its content on Facebook.”)
  • That saving thing. WSJ needs to give viewers tools to save videos. The NPR tablet playlist is a great model here.
  • That search thing. Hard to find at this point.

If you run a newspaper company, or a newsroom, WSJ Live should interrupt your reverie that replica tablet products are “enough,” right now. Hell — smarter presentations of text on tablet products, with good still photos, aren’t enough. But WSJ Live says that far better than 10 analyst columns.

If you run a broadcast company, WSJ Live should send a chill down your spine.How did these print guys do moving pictures better than us? Most local broadcast companies are still stuck in the broadcast thinking mode.

While CNN moved early and impressively to real multimedia, its tablet news video experience isn’t near as fluid. NBC’s Nightly News app is good and has Brian Williams to give it personality, but, too, doesn’t compare well. MSNBC is not yet seen on the tablet, other than Rachel Maddow’s show. The uber multi-platform Bloomberg, exploding in reach and in hiring talent, is undoubtedly studying WSJ Live and planning to play catchup.

WSJ Live becomes the sixth WSJ iPad-specific apps, with one additional Barrons and two Marketwatch (one paid, its data app) products. What began not long ago as an experiment in tablet products is becoming serious business.

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