i-ec5a80fb3a9fcb62b35c2770733cba73-Bill Grueskin.jpg
Bill Grueskin

Historically, the august Wall Street Journal’s website has been the antithesis of Web 2.0 and online innovation. The Journal’s site, WSJ.com, costs money to access, even if you already pay for the print edition. The site has stressed online columns, as opposed to blogs, and there has been very little multimedia.

But much has changed in the past year as the American business-news leader has launched blogs, boosted its podcasts, and even dabbled in regular video reports, with 50 new clips added per week. And what started as a way to showcase Journal content free to bloggers (as I reported for OJR in 2004) has become a much more rich online conversation, with the Journal now including Technorati links to bloggers’ commentary on each story.

Bill Grueskin, managing editor of WSJ.com, has long been a fan of the blogosphere, but had been wary about actually launching blogs at his site. In our previous conversations on the subject, he was worried about the legal issues of having reporters post instantaneously online and possibly moving markets before editors could see what was happening. Now, Grueskin tells me the Journal has found subjects that work as blogs, and they’ve figured out a method for doing quick editorial oversight.

“We’ve all come around to seeing how powerful blogs can be and how they generate their own momentum,” he told me in a wide-ranging interview. “You can really get the community going. When [WSJ law blogger Peter] Lattman does a post about the heavy prison terms handed out to certain felonious CEOs, and asks ‘what do you think about that, readers?’ We find that there are 65 comments posted in a couple hours. There’s a real value there that you wouldn’t get in a regular column.”

The Journal in general is undergoing another rethink for the digital age, with plans for a smaller print edition launching on January 2, and a move to more analysis in print and breaking news online. There’s even a move afoot to change the way reporters at the Dow Jones newswire, the print Journal and online Journal do their jobs. Instead of all three reporters covering the same news conferences and earnings reports, the basic bare-bones stories will be left to the wire reporters, leaving the others to add to the stories as they develop.

Over the next few months, it will be interesting to watch what happens as the Journal changes its operations, shrinks its print edition and tries to be more aggressive online — especially in the area of online community and engagement.

The following is an edited version of a phone conversation and email correspondence I had recently with Grueskin, where he explained many of the changes at WSJ.com and defended his reporters’ obsession with the Most Popular Stories list as “not a bad thing.”

How would you sum up this year for your site and for online media in general?

Bill Grueskin: For everybody, I would call it a happily tumultuous year. Especially for sites such as WSJ.com that are closely tied to a print product. We’re confronted with some very tough trends in the print advertising industry. At the same time, the growth continues to be in the solid double digits [for online ads], and we’ve raised the price of a subscription by 25% this year. And we separated out a subscription to Barron’s [online]; so if you wanted both, it was a rise of 50% year over year. And we were still able to grow our subscription base by 30,000 or 40,000 subscribers.

The ad market has been good, and it’s been a challenge to figure out how to take advantage of the trends online while continuing to do things that are expected by people reading an online version of a print product that has decades and decades of history. It’s a long way of saying it was a very good year for WSJ.com and Dow Jones Online, and most of my counterparts who run sites attached to print products would say the same thing. It’s just that there are concerns about the part of the business [the print side] that still provides the funding.

How do you balance the desire to do innovation online but still serve the print side?

Grueskin: Fortunately, the way people are getting information is changing so quickly, and we can apply the metrics on reader usage to the decisions we make — not necessarily on individual stories, but on what things work and what things don’t. It’s really helped propel things faster than by being on the bully pulpit alone. If we start breaking more stories online rather than hoping some embargo will hold until 4 a.m. the next day, that doesn’t just generate more traffic but makes it more clear to the journalists here that they’re on top of the story. The reverse is also true. If you’re not breaking stories throughout the day on a competitive beat, then even if you have a better story in the next day’s paper, you still got beat.

One of the most popular features among Dow Jones staff is the “Most Popular” stories list, where you can see what’s been read the most each day, week and month. People care deeply about whether their stories show up in the Top 10 or not. I think that’s not a bad thing. Obviously those statistics can be affected by story placement and blog outreach, but you can get a sense of what type of stories your readers care deeply about and you can try to formulate your coverage along the lines of what your readers want. And that’s not a bad thing for journalists to do.

You don’t think there’s a danger in pandering to readers a little bit?

Grueskin: Not with our readers. Maybe we’re lucky because we’re a subscription site, and we have a fair amount of content that goes free everyday, but we’re primarily a subscription site. Our readers have values that are very similar to those of the journalists that work here. If we were a different kind of site it could wind up as pandering. But journalists historically have spent a lot of time covering subjects that readers aren’t interested in, and it’s starting to bite back now. It’s helpful for [journalists] to get a sense of what people read and what they don’t.

Terri Cullen writes the Fiscally Fit personal finance column for WSJ.com. She’s taken a different approach this year, where she’s looking at a lot of personal finance issues through the eyes of her own family situations. She had a column a few weeks ago on “piggyback mortgages,” where you get one mortgage on top of another. It was fairly detailed and did OK traffic. Then she did another column on mortgages and it was about her own family deciding whether to pay off their mortgage early and live debt-free in time for when their kid went to college. That column got at least six times as much readership.

You can go to the forum and see. The first column on piggyback mortgages got 8 responses and 1,100 views — that’s for the forum not the column. The one on whether you should pay off your mortgage got 86 responses and 6,200 views. They’re both about mortgages but they were very different ways to look at the same topic within a two-week period. It tells you something about online and what people are looking for and how we try to do it.

I’ve also heard that you’re changing the way you’re doing reporting, from the wires to online to print. Can you tell me more about that?

Grueskin: We’re in the process of making the change, and it will go fully in effect with earnings in January. We’ve had some redundancies with the way the print Journal, online Journal and newswires would cover what we call “corporate disclosure news.” That’s stuff that you know is coming out, like you know Ford Motor Company is going to have its earnings on such-and-such date. Not only was there redundancy but the stories weren’t being built the best way online.

We call it the Build Method, where you start off with a breaking news headline, if it’s significant enough you do an email alert or desktop alert. Then you build the story minute by minute or hour by hour on the website. This isn’t much different than what the wire services have been doing for generations. We’re trying to funnel that work so everyone’s contributing what’s appropriate to the story and not doing the same things. So you can come to the site any time during the business day and get truly the latest version of that story, and you can’t say that about most other places where they just do one story and they’re done.

So in this new way of doing things, will you split up what parts of the story each reporter will cover? Will it change their beats?

Grueskin: Effectively what it will mean is that print Journal reporters won’t be totally absent from the spot news flow, but they’ll be involved more as consultants. They won’t be responsible for pushing through the first version of the story — that will come from the newswire group. Journal reporters will be responsible for taking a look at these stories when they’re crossing WSJ.com’s home page and looking at ways they can contribute. Those contributions will be funneled through the central desk, and pushed out for the newswires and WSJ.com.

To some extent, it’s very similar to what we’ve already been doing. But we never had the continuous news desk that the [Washington] Post and [New York] Times have. We view our entire operations as a continuous operation, not just two or three people sitting downtown. We think this will help us maximize everyone’s contributions better.

We’ve talked a lot before about the pay vs. free content debate. For a long time, you complained about the Post and Times giving everything away for free. Now the New York Times has its pay TimesSelect features, and yet you have gone the opposite way with more free content. You have free features each day, you have free blogs, free video. How have things changed?

Grueskin: I can’t tell the New York Times what their business model should be. I think both the Times and the Journal are operating from the same corporate principle that you don’t want to be totally dependent on advertising. Even though advertising has been gangbusters for the past few years in the online world, it is a cyclical business. Whether the [down] cycle will kick in next year or in 2027, nobody knows. And if you have a print product, like the Economist or Financial Times, there’s definitely some erosion in your print subscription numbers if you go completely free.

As a percentage of our total content set, free content is less than 1% of the total. What we’ve found is that there are certain stories…the one everyone is linking to [recently] is the story about Judith Regan getting fired from HarperCollins. At one point, it was widely linked from blogs, and we’ve got a good sense about what stories will get a lot of links and which won’t. Stories about media, politics, and certain technology stories get a lot of links from blogs and we’ve found that they don’t hurt our subscription numbers. In fact, when we get content out there, we think it gives people a better sense of the breadth and depth of the Journal’s content.

But with the blogs, we made them free from the beginning, because we felt it was important, given the linking to all the other sites that we do via these blogs, and trying to build communities around them. We felt it was better to make them free rather than closing them behind the wall. As a percentage of the overall content, it’s still pretty small. As a visible way to show people what the Journal does it’s been really effective.

You’ve also had these “open houses” as well, where the whole site is free for a number of days.

Grueskin: Some of those open houses were driven by advertisers. We had one recently that was sponsored by Philips [Electronics]. There were a number of Fridays this fall where Philips sponsored an opening of the site, and they did it with TimesSelect as well. I think increasingly when we do open houses — we’re not going to be doing that many — they’ll be ad-driven rather than exposing people to new content. After a while, they lose their impact as a subscription driver.

With all the social media sites and video-sharing sites like YouTube there isn’t a lot of innovation in pay content, outside of maybe people paying more for music downloads. Maybe that’s part of the advertising bubble right now. How can YouTube really pay for hosting all that video?

Grueskin: I think you can make that argument, but one of the things we’re going to do more with in the next 12 months is figuring out how this WSJ.com audience of about 788,000 subscribers, how we can make it more of a community. It’s a fairly distinctive Internet user and content reader, somebody who’s paying money to read the Journal online. Within that group of people, I’m sure there are subsets of people who would be interested in learning from each other, doing some networking, having a community and discussions of some kind.

Even more than a free site, there are some things that we will be doing to leverage the power of the WSJ.com community because it’s substantial, it’s influential, it’s very high income. It’s up to us to figure out how we’re going to be smarter about how to make more of that. I don’t think 788,000 of them will all log into a forum to chat with each other, but I think there are subsets of people within the community who are interested in what others are reading, what they’re doing.

You’re talking about doing something with social networking, like LinkedIn?

Grueskin: Whether it’s social networking, or discussions, or “readers in your category who read this story also read these five stories.” Or “readers in your industry read these stories.” The same way that people go to conferences not for the speakers but so they can meet people in their industry and exchange ideas. When you think about it, how many people do we have in the technology industry subscribing to WSJ.com? It’s a lot and it’s in the upper crust of the industry. So we have to figure out how to maximize that.

You’ve also done a lot of video lately. What are your goals with video?

Grueskin: Well the first goal is pretty straightforward. The ad revenue in video is pretty hard to beat. So far, any ad inventory [in video] we create, we can sell. Editorially it’s very interesting, because there are certain stories the Journal does that work very well with video. They tend not to be the most traditional business stories. Doing a video on a company’s earnings call is not that compelling. When you look at the entire Journal, it’s not just corporate disclosure news; it’s also Personal Journal and Pursuits and Weekend Journal and Marketplace. There’s a whole lot that we find is effective.

Frankly, it’s a little new to us. We have had a relationship with CNBC for a number of years, so a lot of our staff has been pretty good about being in front of a camera, they don’t have that “deer in the headlines” look. But the way you do video online can be very different than TV, in terms of how long it can be, how you build a narrative, how tied it is to print stories. It’s something we do jointly with the MarketWatch group, with the same video player [via Brightcove].

On the subject of blogs, I know you’ve done a lot of online-only columns that were similar to blogs. You had once said that blogs were too instantaneous for the Journal and you couldn’t vet them enough ahead of time. What got you over the hump to finally launch them?

Grueskin: We’ve been trying to figure out what would work well as blogs but not as columns. The law blog by Peter Lattman really set the standard for it. We could have a daily or weekly column for law, but it’s really much more effective as a blog rather than as a column. But if you look at what Jason Fry does with Real Time or Terri Cullen does with Fiscally Fit, I don’t know if they would work as well as blogs.

If something generates a constant flow of news, for instance, like the MarketBeat blog, it revs up at 8 in the morning and goes until about 5 in the evening, and it’s a very effective way to deal with what’s going on in the market. And at the same time, we have a market story that’s updated every hour, “the Dow’s up, the Nasdaq’s down.” There’s some overlap with the two, but at the same time, there are some people who prefer the blog way of looking at the markets, and there are some people who just want to know what’s going on in the market.

We’ve all come around to seeing how powerful blogs can be and how they generate their own momentum. You can really get the community going. When Lattman does a post about the heavy prison terms handed out to certain felonious CEOs, and asks, “what do you think about that, readers?” We find that there are 65 comments posted in a couple hours. There’s a real value there that you wouldn’t get in a regular column.

Do you edit blog posts and/or comments before they’re published online?

Grueskin: Posts are all read before they get posted. We don’t go back and forth arguing for hours about the nut [para]graph of a four-paragraph blog post. For reader comments, we generally look at those after the fact and ask for readers to flag ones with inappropriate content. We only take down a fraction of a percent of comments. We haven’t had problems with that.

There are certain topics that get more comments than others. We just started a blog [called The Juggle] on work and family issues. It’s new so it’s not getting as much traffic as others, but it gets a lot of comments. There are certain topics, like work and family issues, where people are motivated to comment, but on a post about how the market’s doing, they might find that interesting, but they won’t need to comment on it.

How have your podcasts been doing?

Grueskin: Some of them — the Journal Report, the Tech News Briefing — those have done very, very well. I find that over time they really build up a pretty loyal user base. It’s a perfect application so if you have a tech report that comes out at 10 in the morning [Eastern Time], and if you’re in Silicon Valley it comes out at 7 in the morning. You download it automatically and [you can listen to it] on your morning commute going in. We’ve found that a lot of it is very time and date sensitive. If it applies to what you’re doing at the moment, then we’ll download it to you.

There are certain things where you want to hear someone’s voice. You know what, Mark? There are other things where you don’t want to listen for two and a half minutes to somebody telling you something you could read in 35 seconds. Some of the subscriptions have built up into the tens of thousands, and it’s a pretty easy thing for us to do. The Journal has had a radio network for a number of years with taped broadcasts for stations all over the country, and we were able to leverage the talent of those people to do the podcasts. And it’s much easier doing these podcasts than doing the video.

Do you think there’s a place for citizen journalism at WSJ, or ways your readers could help you with newsgathering in some way?

Grueskin: One of the biggest issues we face with citizen journalism is disclosure. That is, in financial and business news, it’s vital that readers know what interest, if any, a journalist has in a company. That’s why our ethics code [PDF file] is so tough on issues such as stock ownership, selling stocks short, etc. WSJ journalists sign that code every year, and it is critically important in establishing our bona fides on stories in which people can make, or lose, a fortune. I don’t know how we could replicate that with citizen journalists.

What do you think about the success of stand-alone business blogs such as PaidContent and GigaOm? Are those lost opportunities for WSJ, or is there a way for you to start up blogs in a similarly entrepreneurial way?

Grueskin: I’m a big fan of work by Rafat Ali, Om Malik and others who have carved out significant audiences with their in-depth coverage of certain topics and industries. The Journal, both print and online, has always co-existed with publications that cover certain industries deeply; indeed, a whole arm of Dow Jones exists to do that already.

There’s a couple of things to keep in mind. A great part of the Journal’s success over decades, as well as over recent years, has been its ability to take a broad view of business and finance that more narrowly focused publications don’t often do. And that pays off in stories such as, for example, our coverage of backdated stock options or the rise of middlemen in the health-care industry. That’s not to say those stories couldn’t be done by industry blogs, but it gets harder as your scope gets narrower.

At the same time, one of the great things about PaidContent, as WSJ Publisher Gordon Crovitz has noted, is that the site created a community of interests that hadn’t existed before. I think those kinds of ventures present tremendous markets, both for bloggers and the MSM [mainstream media] who admire them. We are looking opportunistically for more places to dig deep. That’s why we created the LawBlog and the page that surrounds it, and is also why we’re rolling out a blog on wealth early next year.