What makes a Wall Street Journal story has changed in recent years, says editor

“A relatively short time ago we had a basic rule at The Wall Street Journal for what made a story, or not,” says Wall Street Journal Asia editor Paul Beckett.
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“Would it appeal to the readers of our U.S. paper? Yes, we did it… No, we didn’t.

“In the past few years, that has all changed. Now, our thinking is… Does a story appeal to a digital audience somewhere in the world that is important to us?

“If the answer is yes, we do it.”

Read the transcript of Beckett’s speech at Publish Asia 2014 after the jump.

PAUL BECKETT, ASIA EDITOR, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

FRIDAY APRIL 25, 9 AM

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

A relatively short time ago we had a basic rule at The Wall Street Journal for what made a story, or not.

Would it appeal to the readers of our U.S. paper… Yes, we did it… No, we didn’t.

In the past few years, that has all changed. Now, our thinking is… Does a story appeal to a digital audience somewhere in the world that is important to us?

Paul Beckett

Paul Beckett

If the answer is yes, we do it.

Whether that story runs in our flagship print edition isn’t part of the equation…. If it does, it’s a bonus…. If it doesn’t, no big deal.

Now this is, in some ways, a jarring shift….. It means we no longer have “foreign correspondents” writing for an audience “back home.”

More profoundly, it has prompted us to reassess how we gather the news and set newsroom priorities……

It has revolutionized the way stories are conceived, reported, edited and published.

It has forced us to be a lot more entrepreneurial in the newsroom ….. more independent, more self-reliant and…. ultimately we hope, closer to our readers.

I would like to take you through a few of those changes today.

First question: Who now is our audience? Actually, that’s the wrong question: Who are our audiences?

For The Wall Street Journal today, there are many.

Here in Asia, we are on the hunt for new regular readers all the time … in the language they want to read us in.

Reaching them is very complex. ….But we hope that, in trying, we achieve two things …We distinguish ourselves from our competition … and we introduce the WSJ to a new generation of readers in new geographies.

Ultimately, we want to turn them into subscribers.

Conceptually, we envisage these target audiences in three categories…… flying, as it were, at three different altitudes.

— The 50,000 foot global view….. This is the newspaper….. And it’s the most traditional audience we serve….. global leaders….businesspeople….those in search of a daily digest of quality reporting from around the world….. centered around business, finance, politics and economics. …That is a coveted audience, limited in number.

— Then there is the 30,000 foot regional view… This is the Asia web site, Asia.wsj.com. It means stories that are predominantly about Asia… It means a closer look at the world around us from our base in Hong Kong …. It means stories chosen for an Asian audience from around the world.

–Then…. there is the 10,000 foot national view: We are never going to be a local news operation. We are not even that in the U.S. But especially in countries where we feel we are bringing accuracy and insight to the media equation, it is an increasingly important area for us.

This is where we have our Real Time blogs…We also go close-in on our topics of core coverage in Asia: Digits in Asia for technology, Moneybeat in Asia for finance; Real Time Economics in Asia for economics.

It is where we are putting a big emphasis on our local-language sites…: China WSJ… Japan WSJ… Korea WSJ….Indonesia WSJ…India WSJ (though that is in English).

Our aim here is to be part of a national conversation.

This layered conceptual framework also allows us to have deep wells of stories, video and graphics that stop us being disintermediated by specialists… And, if you tip it on its side, it means we can offer rich verticals of varied coverage of our biggest core topics: Asia technology… Chinese finance… Indian politics.

What practical effect does this have on how we do our journalism?

— We do it locally. …. Each day in Asia we publish more than 100 substantial articles…. before our New York headquarters is awake. ….That requires devolving decision-making, editing, and publishing authority to regional and local editors.

In addition to all of our bureaus around the region, in Hong Kong now we have:

–a real-time editing desk for institutional and digital breaking news

–a news desk for longer story edits

–topics editors who specialize in business, finance, economics

— a large graphics and interactives desk, including soon-to-be three programmers, and a video operation.

— soon we will a standards and ethics editor to ensure that sensitive stories get an extra look and are published during the Asia day.

And when at all possible we follow a practice that we’ve nicknamed internally “simultaneous detonation” – to publish in multiple languages at once.

This places our foreign-language services right at the front of what we are doing digitally….. rather than translation services that follow along behind.

Some examples…..this story on the Bus Strike in Singapore is a classic piece of WSJ long-form narrative journalism…it deals with business, economics, immigration, demographics…. presented in a novel way…… It’s about 10,000 words, run in separate chapters over 5 days.

It ran simultaneously on Southeast Asia Real Time in English…., our Indonesia site in Bahasa…. and on China Real Time in both English and Chinese…… The biggest readership by far was in Chinese.

It didn’t run in the U.S. paper. But it is a story that hit its mark.

This is another example: A 17-minute documentary on the Kowloon Walled City here in Hong Kong that is part of our targeted push into life & style coverage.

When it was picked up by our Yahoo partnership in the U.S., it generated about 400,000 views…… When it ran on CWSJ, through a Chinese partner platform, it garnered almost 900,000. In all, we are looking at 1.25-million views…. It is now the fourth most viewed WSJ video ever. …

The piece was conceived, produced and published in Hong Kong. … And we launched a new multimedia interactive yesterday that takes readers deeper inside this fascinating lost labyrinth. I encourage you to check it out.

This approach allows us to go deeply into topics over a long period of time and in many different ways.

Take one of Asia’s biggest business stories – the listing of Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba. Looking at that from three altitudes has meant big global stories that also ran on the U.S. front page, a big interactive….and close-in, detailed analysis of every aspect of this company and of its closely-followed listing. All of that has been of interest not only to Asia, of course, but to those closely following technology worldwide.

Of course, paramount for us is keeping to the high standards and quality control that the WSJ is known for globally…. That’s imperative. And we continue to march in step with NY on the overall direction of our strategy….. And indeed on many individual stories where we determine the appeal to be universal and where we all benefit from close coordination.

But at times, our new approach means diverging with the needs of the U.S. …. and in particular of the interests of the U.S. paper.

Take Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in November…. That was a story that we knew was of huge interest to our readers in Asia …. and our digital readers globally who are interested in Asia.

But the U.S. paper…. while important and well-served by us every day….. has space constraints and content-mix considerations that inevitably meant a lower appetite for ongoing coverage of that story.

We saw our U.S.-run competition…. in a similar situation…. pull back. We pressed ahead.

The most in-depth pieces we did on the typhoon were classic WSJ narratives one month after the event. They generated huge digital interest. They were not aimed at the U.S. paper though pieces of them ran there when appropriate and there was appetite.

These were stories much enhanced by all that digital can bring to storytelling. I am very glad we did them and, I believe, so are our readers.

Ditto our ongoing coverage of Flight 370… which we have covered as a streaming breaking news story, effectively live-blogging it for 47 days…. an investigative project… an opportunity for in-depth narratives….

Along the way we coordinated closely with our U.S. aviation experts, to good effect: we broke major news on this story AND had rolling coverage 24 hours a day as a result. Nowhere near all of it ran in print…there simply isn’t enough room and that’s OK.

Flight 370 was also a way to experiment with how we reach readers…For instance, with a digital tribute wall that aims to pay testament to every person on board the plane…. in English and translated to Chinese….. and we invited readers to post their thoughts for those Lost at Sea.

We are pursuing this new approach knowing that we need to reach our audiences in different ways…. We are increasingly on mobile….we are pushing hard in search & social media… functions that are now handled day-to-day from our HK newsroom…. again, a dramatic shift from just a year or so ago.

So where do we go from here? We forge ahead – to some degree into unknown territory. But when we identify news events or delve into core topics that we know are of interest to our readers, we aim to give them TOTAL coverage.

The WSJ today is very different than it was a year ago. …. And a year from now, it will be very different again.

Thank you for your time.


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