• The Journal has pushed its staff to produce more SEO-driven content to attract new readers.
  • Louise Story, Chief News Strategist and Chief Product and Tech Officer, is leading the effort.
  • Some employees have pushed themselves back from having to write more about trending topics.
  • You can find more stories in Insider’s business section.

Every year dozens of major websites publish essentially the same story: “When’s the Super Bowl?” – to collect search engine driven traffic before the big game.

In February, an unlikely entrant entered this year’s competition: the Wall Street Journal.

The Journal has put a number of service-minded, search engine-optimized stories on its paywall for the past few months, including a state-to-state COVID-19 vaccination guide and an article setting out what to know before investing in Bitcoin. This type of digital tariff is common on the Internet, but relatively new for the 131-year-old newspaper.

But the push has received mixed reviews internally, admitted the journal’s editor-in-chief Matt Murray. For example, company Beats told reporters that they would be asked to work on more breaking news about the companies they cover, increasing the frequency of its publication, one person said.

Some have welcomed efforts to become more competitive in generating traffic. Murray responded to the pushback by saying that the journal doesn’t have to sacrifice quality to improve its digital chops.

“There’s a little tension there, but that’s fine. That comes with change and growth,” Murray told Insider. “We can’t afford to have our heads in the sand doing what we want like it was 1990 and we were the leading print publication for business news and there was no competition.”

The journal’s new SEO strategy comes from the fact that the paper is counting on its position among the competition. A blistering internal report leaked to BuzzFeed News last year painted a bleak picture of the company’s digital business. It concluded that the journal was too focused on “strong readers” – older, often wealthier, business customers – but needed to attract a younger and more diverse “light” readership to grow.

Louise Story, the newspaper’s chief news strategist and chief product and technology officer, was responsible for the digital push. Story oversees the journal’s Digital Experience and Strategy team, known as DXS, an in-house technology and product unit, and has worked with Murray and other senior editorial staff to develop the digital strategy.

This has meant launching initiatives including the launch of the self-help newsletters Money Challenge and Fitness Challenge.

Story told Insider that the pandemic made it clear that readers want more service-oriented information. The journal published its first such article with information about coronaviruses on February 8, 2020. Since then it has compiled a list of “guides” on topics such as finding a job or how unemployment works. “We did all of this for free before the paywall and are updating it,” said Story.

The journal’s Google traffic has increased by 80% since the end of 2019. The average page views of an SEO-driven story are ten times higher than typical stories, said a journal spokesman. The paper typically publishes about four SEO-driven stories per week and two or three guides (out of about 600 weekly stories in total), the spokesperson added.

In total, the journal had 63.8 million visitors per month in January, up from 52.9 million in January 2020, according to Comscore.

“Senior publishers run the risk of prioritizing subscriptions and giving users some sort of ‘subscribe or bust’ decision that doesn’t work well with consumers who are used to a plethora of choices,” said Ana Milicevic, principal and co-founder of strategy consultancy Sparrow Advisers. “The WSJ shows that it doesn’t have to be so binary: good business news can be monetized in different ways.”

As The Journal advances its digitally focused strategy, there are rumors of cuts internally. Murray said there have been a small number of “selective departures and retirements” recently but that “no major special effort has been made with regard to takeovers”.

The journal tries to attract younger readers

The main takeaway from last year’s leaked internal report was that the journal needed to find new, younger audiences in order to survive. “If we keep the churn, traffic and digital growth where they are today, it will take us on the order of 22 years,” to reach the newspaper’s target of 5.5 million subscribers, the report said . According to the latest earnings report from parent company News Corp. about 3.22 million subscribers, with subscribers for digital media only being about 2.46 million.

As the journal seeks out new audiences, it looks for ways to give a more youthful jolt to early careers in areas like personal finance coverage, where a historically well-known section of the newspaper wrote more about topics like student debt for high income and retirement content.

“It’s probably fair to say that, by and large, our personal financial reporting has often been aimed at people in a specific place in life and at a specific level of wealth,” said Murray. “We realized that we can write for this audience, but we can also help students looking for their first job, a bank loan or buying their first home.”

Matt Murray Wall Street Journal

Matt Murray, editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal.

Paul Morigi / Getty Images

The publication has also tried to emphasize the importance of pressure in recent years (it created its own “pressure switch” in 2016). “You are at the end of the chain now, and we have been culturally genuinely active against being on the front page of print,” said Murray.

The journal also looks at how the paper reports on races

The journal’s internal report also found that the paper’s coverage of race, identity and gender was missing and that a review of a sample of articles found that nearly two-thirds of the people cited were white. “Reporters censor themselves and don’t suggest these stories enough. They are concerned about the review of how they are written,” an editor said on the report.

Last month, Murray emailed staff about the increasing diversity of sources cited in articles: “The Wall Street Journal should properly capture the diversity of our society and appeal to the widest possible audience,” he wrote in an email from Insider.

Murray said the journal also needs to improve leadership diversity. A spokesman for the journal declined to provide internal numbers on diversity. Last summer, The Journal named journalist Brent Jones as editor for culture, education and public relations.

“It’s one of the things that comes to my mind this year,” said Murray. “We’re not where we should be in terms of diversity. I would never talk about it when I feel like the job is done.”

The author of this story worked in the journal from 2014 to 2017.