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Interview: Wall Street Journal digital chief Raju Narisetti on innovation, mistakes and opportunities

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Forget the idea that newspapers have too much innovation to cope with – they’re not moving nearly fast enough, according to the managing editor of Wall Street Journal’s digital network.

Raju Narisetti re-joined the Journal in February 2012 after three years as managing editor of the Washington Post, where he led a big programme of technological change in the newsroom. He was a senior editor and executive at the Journal for more than a decade in the 1990s and 2000s so it’s a homecoming of sorts.

But all the while, Indian-born Narisetti has developed a firm belief that the route to success for media businesses is a mixture of content and technology, across different platforms.

I sat down with him in London this week to find out what makes him tick and what’s wrong and right with the media landscape today.

 

You’ve been seen as an advocate for change within old media businesses. Do you think the pace of change needs to be faster?

Definitely and I think for two reasons. One is the technological changes the industry has to deal with – there are so many disruptive technologies that emerge.

The second is that audiences increasingly have much more opportunity to be promiscuous than ever before. In the print world you had a bit of a lock on them in terms of falling into someone’s doorway. But online with the flick of a finger they can go elsewhere.

Our business model has to be nimble and really fast to deal with that otherwise you’ll always fall behind. As in industry we’ve not been particularly good matching technology with audience needs.

What have the big mistakes been in the industry in the last decade?

One mistake people have made – with the exception of people like the Wall Street Journal – is the idea that if you grow audiences and grow enough critical mass of audience that the advertising will come and the revenue will grow proportionally.

That hasn’t panned out at all. Even though some media companies have done well from that mass of eyeballs they’ve not been able to monetise it. That means that whatever you say about the print business it remains the majority of revenue and in some cases profits, or losses.

The other one is the sense that ‘if only the economy gets better than print will be fine.’ That’s hubris, honestly, print’s never going to go back to its glory days and those who are not managing their costs and reacting to their current revenue streams will suffer.

Also, a lot of decisions tend to be made by publishing execs who have a much shorter personal horizon – so as a result have a lot at stake over the next five or ten years, because of their retirement or profit share. That’s had a significant impact on media business models and it’s still happening. I don’t see anyone who’s making 10 or 15 year bets and taking short-term hits to make them happen.

 

How will the digital strategy of the Wall Street Journal develop?

I think in two ways. We’ll have a very premium, subscriber-led model which is wsj.com, and at the other end a fairly large free-to-consumer model which is Marketwatch, Smartmoney.com and some other sites. So we’ll play in the free and paid models.

The big strategy I think you’ll see is WSJ Everywhere – no matter where our consumers want to consume our content, we’ll be there, as long as they are willing to pay. (WSJ just launched a paid subscription content offer on the Pulse aggregator) You’ll see us do more of that.

You can imagine, if and when Twitter gets around to doing a premium Twitter channel, that would be a great opportunity for us to play in that space as well, and the same thing with YouTube.

Is the point of the free WSJ and associated content to convert people to paying customers?

It’s difficult for people who are not exposed to your content to suddenly become a subscriber, because they’ve not understood the value of the content. The idea is to have a funnel, with an interesting cross-section of free content that shows what WSJ provides, and the idea is to upsell people into subscribers.

The free model also makes sense because in the advertising business you always want to be in the consideration set of big media companies getting consideration from advertisers. To do that you need volume and reach, as well as the elite audience.

Do you think we still need newsroom integration between online and print, or have we moved on from that now?

I have a different view on this. Content creation ought to be a single multiplatform group. But content management ought to be specialised. I get very irritated when people say they are platform-agnostic, because each platform is a very different opportunity to create a different experience.

So the specialists are at the content management and dissemination end – making content available online, for iPads, for mobile.

Journalists working to fill a page of news print is inside-out thinking. You have to say, where is our audience and where are they consuming our content? Typically for a big media company it’s between 6am and 4pm, for digital audiences. If you focus on having an amazing intra-day experience for your audience, the chances are that the end product, in this case the paper, will be a pretty good paper.

So what we’ve gone from is a single deadline to a 36-hour life cycle where you do lots of things during the day and then you pause to put together the paper. Then when the stories go live the next day they have a new life online.

You’ve been described as someone who isn’t afraid of hurting people’s feelings when it comes to cultural change in media – do you think that’s inevitable?

I’ve done three major publishing changes in the last 10 years and none of them have been easy. People are wedded to a particular group of practices and they have to re-think what they do.

There are always ways to prove that a new publishing platform will have ROI… you need to make a business case.

One of the mistakes newsrooms make when they have big change is for it to be an IT project. I think that’s really fatal. It’s always more successful when the newsroom leads the change.

The Washington Post ombudsman in January criticised the paper for going too fast with digital innovation. You responded then but what are your thoughts now?

The role of an ombudsman is to represent the readers… I felt like complaining there’s too much change in an industry like ours was really driving with your eyes on the rearview mirror and saying how far we’ve come instead of saying where are we going.

I disagreed with him, particularly because there was evidence we had a bigger audience for the Post than any time in its history. It was a false choice between stability and innovation.

How would you sum up your role at WSJ now?

When people ask me what my mission is at the WSJ I have a simple answer: to get more people to consume more Journal content profitably.

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