From the WSJ to Bloomberg, how are business titles overcoming the challenges presented by digital?

Business news brands are facing the biggest challenge of their existence in the digital age, but the sector is still reaping the rewards of catering to a niche, highly engaged audience.

David Cameron shuns Facebook, the Daily Mail and the Sun newspapers in the morning and prefers to start his day by reading the Wall Street Journal, according to the executive who oversees ‘the Journal’s’ activities outside of the US.

Whether the PM does or not, only a few will know, but there is little doubt that business news is the speeding juggernaut of the news industry, dominating online and print headlines, leading TV bulletins and making sex symbols of those business editors who can talk authoritatively about the Laffer Curve.

Staff at Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters, the WSJ, the Financial Times, and the Economist are feasting on the woes of the yen and stock market jitters, but below the headlines their business models are facing a briefcase full of challenges, whether that be pesky click-baiters offering free commoditised content, a depressed display advertising market, or the challenge of Facebook Instant Articles, Google Accelerated Mobile Pages and other off-platform channels.

Or as Tom Standage, head of digital strategy at the Economist points out, the biggest challenge is time itself. He says: “We are competing for our readers’ attention, and they are busy people. So we have to deliver valuable information and do it concisely and accurately if we’re going to persuade readers to continue to pay for our journalism.”

While generally known for their news brands, many of the big players are part of large groups supported by other businesses.

Bloomberg’s business, for example, is buttressed by selling financial data systems. Ditto Reuters, while the FT’s new owner Nikkei publishes the Nikkei 225 share index.

That said, like a fast paced newsroom, business news brands are continually needing to revamp their propositions to stay relevant to their readership of cut-throat decision makers.

Going beyond the news

According to Katie Vanneck-Smith, the chief customer officer and global managing director of Dow Jones, the publisher of the WSJ, the recipe for success in the business news industry is three-pronged: great journalism, innovating across all channels, and offering services beyond news.

“We go beyond the news at WSJ,” she says. “The killer act in this increasingly digital world is providing people with tangible, physical experiences.” She points to events that the WSJ has hosted featuring Mark Carney and US economist Ben Bernanke.

Ad blocking not an existential threat

For heavily subscription-focused brands like the Economist and the WSJ, ad blocking is not an existential threat, while some that offer free content simply have no truck with them.

This is the approach taken by Incisive Media, Weller says. “In our technological division we had seen clearly some of our customers use ad blockers. It’s not material but it is increasing and so we have taken the decision not to present them with free content. Frankly, they either unblock or they have to pay for our content.”

Reuters, meanwhile, tested ad blocking technology on its free Reuters.com website but believes the power of the Reuters brand drowns out the small pool of ad blockers. Bill Roirdan, the publisher of Reuters.com, says: “My view is you really can’t control who blocks your site, but we can control user experience and the content.”

On top of business news, the News Corporation-owned WSJ also sells specialists subscription packages, such as its WSJ Pro products which offer data, events and news on specialist finance issues at a cost of $2,000+ a year (compared to $500 a year for a subscription to the WSJ), as it looks to make money outside of a less lucrative advertising market.

Likewise, the Economist uses its data via its B2B arm, the Economist Intelligence Unit, to sell country and industry data.

Incisive Media, the B2B publisher, meanwhile, has shifted from selling subscriptions of its key financial brand, Risk, from individual to institutions.

Incisive Media chief executive Tim Weller says: “Some of our institutions pay £200,000 a year for their subscription. Historically we would have charged just under £2,500 [for an individual subscription].”

Data adding stardust to biz news

From an editorial standpoint, business news lends itself well to data, as it can bring to life sober financial reporting with visuals and charts.

The FT, for instance, has a team of around 30 working across all departments embedding and integrating data within the business.

Tom Betts, chief data officer at the FT, says: “Tools such as our in-house editorial analytics dashboard help FT journalists get to grips with how our readers are consuming and engaging with our journalism on a daily basis.”

Likewise, the Economist is known for its charts and data visualisations.

Heritage brands win out

The sheer volume of free content no doubt poses a challenge for business news brands but not to the extent it does general news.

As Vanneck-Smith points out: “Business brands have been less impacted by the fact that news has become free which is ultimately the thing that has devalued the media industry the most.”

And while chief executives and financial directors may be increasingly time-pressed, it is inevitable they will rely on the brands with a strong heritage they trust – be it online or in print – and ignore the clutter in their daily inboxes. Just as long as business news brands can offer a seamless experience across paper, online, mobile and social the future is largely positive.

Roirdan advises his contemporaries focus on the positives. “In the long run if you push transparency, if you push performance, you focus on user experience and really understanding what the user wants. And returning to your customer – which is the advertiser – if you can offer them as much transparency as possible, I think in the long run it will be good business.”

Facebook Instant Articles

The arrival of Facebook Instant Articles – and other off-platform channels – has sent some publishers into a lather of excitement, but business news brands appear split on exporting their content elsewhere.

The format allows publishers to post articles directly to Facebook and results in faster mobile loading times. After rolling out last year for big name publishers, it will open up to all publishers on 12 April. The Economist has signed up, viewing it as an opportunity for increased brand awareness. “Our approach is to embrace off-platform consumption primarily as a way to raise awareness of our brand rather than as a source of advertising revenues,” Standage says. “It’s about figuring out where to invest our effort and resources on third-party platforms. We can’t do everything, so which ones should we focus on? And how can we tell which ones are delivering the most value? That’s what everyone is asking themselves this year.”

Though Reuters isn’t signed up yet, publisher Roirdan says: “We’re not on Instant Articles yet, but we have video that we post natively [on Facebook]. We want to grow our audience on Facebook so sometimes that means posting things natively is better as you have people recognising the Reuters brand [on Facebook].”

The WSJ, meanwhile, has social and audience development teams overseeing how and where its journalists share content, but as a subsection-model business, its social activity is geared towards driving customers to its own platforms. Vanneck–Smith says: “Like others who have got the same magic dust as us, we can sustain being a destination.”

This feature was first published in The Drum's B2B special issue on 24 February.

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