Hundreds of thousands of students are subscribing to The Wall Street Journal and most are women

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

A scene from the Journal's ‘Good Things Come to Those Who Don’t Wait' ad campaign

A media battle is being fought over the next generation of business-minded women and The Wall Street Journal has achieved early success by recruiting nearly 200,000 female students as subscribers.

In a politically-charged atmosphere where businesses are being challenged over their gender pay gaps and the Time’s Up movement is highlighting the lack of women in the boardroom, media companies are paying greater attention to gender imbalances in their audiences.

The Wall Street Journal, which skews around 80% male in its subscriber base and 70% in its broader readership, targeted young women in its most recent advertising campaign, which featured a female protagonist with big ambitions and no time to lose.

The Financial Times, which also has an 80% male split in subscribers, has admitted that women in its focus groups think that if the paper was a person it would be a man. The FT, which recently published an undercover exposé of chauvinism among Britain’s business elite, has launched a newsletter aimed at women. Called ‘Long Story Short’, it is fronted by female journalists and intended to be “more approachable and conversational” in tone than other FT newsletters.

The Economist, meanwhile, is also on a drive to recruit more female readers, with women currently making up less than 30 per cent of its 1.4m subscribers.

It feels safe to assume that this is a contest motivated not so much by the prospect of achieving the respectability of gender parity as by the opportunity to monetise a large and previously untapped audience segment.

For The Wall Street Journal there is the added incentive that a rush of young female devotees can help it to achieve its target of 3 million subscribers (across the portfolio of its publisher Dow Jones), a challenge set by Will Lewis, Dow Jones chief executive and publisher of the Journal.

Dow Jones will imminently hit that 3 million figure (it passed 2.8 million in February, with 2.3 million of those being Journal subscriptions), although not within the three-year target which Lewis laid down when he took up his post in 2014.

Targeting tomorrow's female business leaders

The publisher is being helped across the line by a drive on US school and university campuses that, The Drum understands, has resulted in more than 350,000 student sign-ups. Some of these are $49-a-year individual student subs (the Journal is currently offering a “flash sale” sample of 15 weeks access for $1), and others are individual activations of campus-wide Journal sponsorships paid for by their university.

What is remarkable about this campus push is that 53% of sign-ups are by female students.

Asked why young women should trust a conservative institution like the 135-year-old Dow Jones to support their needs in business, Suzi Watford, chief marketing officer of The Wall Street Journal, says the organisation’s commitment is genuine. “Dow Jones – in terms of our leadership team – is very balanced in terms of gender. Internally I know it’s something we care about.”

She says that young women – and students in general – have responded well to the title’s “Read Ambitiously” messaging that implies that the paper offers insights that can turbo-charge a career.

“When we spoke to our student audience the biggest thing they said about The Wall Street Journal was that it helps me be more successful, it’s going to help me get a better job (and) when I prepare for an interview I read The Wall Street Journal. We thought there’s a great opportunity to be there not just for when people are in their career but to help them get that career.”

In the Journal’s latest campaign, ‘Good Things Come to Those Who Don’t Wait’, a baby girl is born in the hospital car park before her mother reaches the maternity ward and then, later in life and ever pro-active, she hurtles onwards to a successful career. Watford says that among a targeted base of young people their willingness to subscribe to the Journal rose by 126% after watching the ad. “The insight was that it ‘inspires me to act on my ambition’,” she says, claiming that the Journal has found a different brand positioning to its less business-orientated rivals The New York Times (whose latest ad in its “The Truth…” campaign also has a gender equality message) and The Washington Post (slogan: ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness”).

Targeting young ambitious readers, female and male, will enable the Journal “to have a more diverse business audience in future” she says.

The scale of student readership is set to grow further and have a significant impact on the future of the business. “When we get to half a million students, 20% of The Wall Street Journal (audience) will be under-24 – that for the product and for news is fascinating. It’s perhaps not what we would have expected when we said we were going to grow (but) what is exciting is that it starts being an important part of product and experience because it’s not a small fringe group, it’s a significant volume of your base.”

Watford acknowledges that young women signing up to a campus sponsorship is different from them registering for a $9.99-a-month graduate package, let alone a $440-a-year core membership deal. The challenge will be to refine the Journal’s offering to make women feel more included. “It’s going to be great for us to be able to track that cohort (of young women subscribers) and see if we keep them, and if they stay engaged with the product,” she says. “The Financial Times and the Economist are doing things around the female audience as well and we are all going though the process of understanding what content is working, (and) what product experience is working.”

She is clear that students – male and female – do not want “dumbed down” youthful content. “They don’t want a different student experience, they want The Wall Street Journal.” But younger readers do respond better to certain product services, notably newsletters and podcasts, she says.

Bringing equality to live events

Where the Journal aims to really serve the female audience is in product experience, with its live portfolio now running to over 200 events across the year. Its ‘Women In…’ series, tied to industry insights produced by McKinsey & Company, highlights the role of female leaders in sectors including finance and technology. Watford says the Journal will make a “distinct effort” in representing women in panels and audiences at its live events.

As part of its efforts to target female students, the Journal ran a recent networking event at City University New York, including a panel with senior women from the paper. At Barnes & Noble bookshop in New York last month students were invited to hear Journal management news editor Joann Lublin talking with women executives on how female leaders can succeed in business.

At The Wall Street Journal’s ‘The Future of Everything Festival’ in New York next month, there will be a strand on equality and, for the first time, student subscribers will be invited. “Normally our big journalistic events have been very much aimed at the C-Suite,” says Watford. “For the first time we are bringing the C-Suite together with the entrepreneurs and the students to get cross-generational networking going on.”

Watford was in London last week for a meeting of The Wall Street Journal CEO Council, an exclusive membership club for around 300 chief executives, representing the pinnacle of the Journal’s membership pyramid (C-Suite memberships packages range from $7,500 to $20,000-ayear).

The London meeting, the Council’s first in the UK and attended by members from 20 countries, made headlines when David Davis, the UK’s Brexit Secretary, held an on-stage interview with Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker.

When Dow Jones hits its 3 million target, Watford will hold a party. “I hope to be back in New York for it, it’s very close.” A pivotal moment in that subscription growth story was the publisher’s decision, 18 months ago, to withdraw from Google’s First Click Free policy, which had enabled readers to get behind its paywall.

The change, which followed furious public attacks on Google by Lewis and other senior figures in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, resulted in an immediate upsurge in Wall Street Journal subscriptions. “We saw a huge increase in conversion,” says Watford. “Unsurprisingly, when people were faced with ‘You can read this if you pay, will you pay?’, yes, people did pay.”

Google itself abandoned First Click Free last October in favour of a new Flexible Sampling policy designed to help news publishers that have subscription models, but Watford would like the search giant to be more open about its algorithm. “There is still a need for more transparency,” she says.

In the meantime, the Journal has developed a “dynamic paywall” which has “80 different variables” in determining the degree of free access a user is given, linked to their “propensity” to subscribe. ‘It’s based on what you have read before, how often you have read before, and what device you are reading on,” says Watford. “It’s getting very smart and very good at predicting.”

The Journal’s multi-tiered membership scheme, from university campus upwards, means it operates a “slightly different beast” from the subscription and donor models of other news outlets, says Watford. She claims it puts her business in a stronger position as paywalled publishers look to consolidate recent gains in paid audience by resisting churn in a competitive market.

“We have this opportunity to bring people on from students and see them through their career to the point where they can be a member of the C-suite audience,” she says. “There’s a nice story progression: from student to entrepreneur to executive.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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