Is the Wall Street Journal the Future of News Video?

Why TV news in 2015 could look a lot like the outlet’s video today

It’s not hard to mock the Wall Street Journal’s online video operation. The outlet’s daily broadcasts can feel a bit like the A.V. club at a tony school aping the nightly news. That impression isn’t helped by the fact that a host, Simon Constable, resembles the Muppets’ parody of a newscaster.

But don’t go for the easy laugh because that would miss the significance of the innovation. In relatively short order, the Journal’s site has reached 10 million streams a month of its various videos—ranging from long-form interviews to illustrations of the day’s most vivid stories to news and opinion shows shot and broadcast live. This last group is the most ambitious in its attempt to domesticate cable television to a Web format. It accounts for 20 percent of the Journal’s video traffic.

“Video lets people see who our reporters are and hear how they think,” says deputy managing editor Alan Murray, who oversees the operation. “We’ve doubled our video viewership in the last nine months, and I’d like to see us double it again in the next year or two.”

Doubling traffic won’t get the video newcomer very far on a steeply ascending scale, though: CNBC’s primetime audience can fluctuate between 200 and 300,000 viewers, MSNBC.com delivered 154 million streams in May, and Hulu reached 1 billion monthly streams last December. To be a real force in media, the Journal’s streams will need to keep doubling for some time to come.

But those 10 million streams are very promising start. And they’re probably bringing in some real money, too—perhaps $200,000 or so a month—because advertisers are willing to pay strong CPMs for video, especially around business. The revenue won’t save the paper from the ravages of the ad market. But it probably pays a good part of the costs of keeping a video team of 23.

More importantly, video integrates into the traditional content on the Web and through the iPad app in ways that propel the Journal forward. And it’s a reasonable bet that TV news in 2015 will look a lot more like the A.V. club than what networks produce today: A new generation of devices will enable a news outlet to have the same reach as TV, far cheaper. This opens up a new mandate for the Journal. But the opportunity also comes at a price to be paid in terms of production quality.

The Journal isn’t alone in capturing the ad dollars that want to be spent against news video. Like the New York Times and Reuters, News Corp.’s flagship paper produces lots of b-roll backgrounders that can run next to its stories with the higher value pre-roll ads attached.Journal reporters go a little further in using video for gimmes, as when Robert Frank got an exclusive tour of Russian billionaire Andrei Melnichenko’s yacht even though he’d written about the boat two years before.

But what the WSJ does better than other news outlets is meld its editorial and reporting staff with the news itself to turn its people into trusted experts. It’s doing this by adapting the conventions of television news to the do-it-yourself ethos of the Web. The best example is in the daily live shows that are made available as on-demand video.

The combination could become the standard for video news as the era of network news ends. The collapse of the broadcast networks’ news ratings, the decline of CNN, and the victory of operatic theatricality at MSNBC, Fox News, and CNBC mean that the dominant source of straight news on video may soon come from a no-name anchor broadcasting “live” over the Web.

But whatever the future holds for Web-based video news, it’s unlikely to reach a truly meaningful audience any time soon. The live Webcasts for the Journal’s signature NewsHub show at 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., but they don’t get much more than a few thousand live viewers every day, and some tens of thousands of on-demand viewers.

However, if you do that four times a day—by adding the popular Digits show on the tech world plus the Opinion Journal for the traditional base—you’re pretty much guaranteed up to 2 million streams. That’s a good base for your video operation while you’re also habituating the audience to look for regular commentary online. That way, when news breaks, your readers don’t have to go to cable to see what a WSJ reporter thinks.

I’ve been curious about the Journal’s video strategy for some time. But when Murray tweeted several weeks ago that they’d established a steady flow of 6 million-7 million streams a month, we started a correspondence that resulted in an invitation to see what it takes to make live television at a newspaper.

Murray didn’t set out to create a live news broadcast. He backed into it after experimenting with instant coverage of Super Tuesday in 2008. He had had direct experience with TV production during his three years as a co-host on Capital Report, CNBC’s Washington-based nightly news show. So Murray knew that producing a show on tape or even live-to-tape was terribly time-consuming.

Give anyone in front of a camera the opportunity to backtrack and improve their performance, and they’ll take it. So Murray decided the most cost-effective way to produce the quantity of video he needed was to shoot his sub-10-minute shows live, with no excuses. “When it’s live,” Murray says, “everyone seems to perform better.”

Even 10 months into production, the control room crackles with experimentation. We’re standing outside an oversized utility closet near the AM Report set—which is basically a high table, some lights, and a few cameras off the main newsroom—because four people in the booth creates an uncomfortable crowd.

There are other annoyances that come with shooting in a working newsroom. The Digits broadcast is shot a few feet from a restroom, and the audio for the show is plagued by the john’s slamming door and occasional footsteps that echo down the hallway. (Can’t anyone hang an out-of-order sign while they’re shooting?)

Those obvious gaffes aside, the videos do benefit from their informal feel. Some Dow Jones people aren’t ready for prime Web time. But for the most part, the producers have found some interesting characters who can play to type and perform their assigned task of offering up pithy takes on the news. They’ve also fallen into the same trap that has so many serious people fed up with CNBC and its continual use of hammy distractions and cartoonish editorializing from the hosts. At the Journal, that role is played by Evan Newmark:

In television, everyone plays a role. But the Journal is still a place where reporters come with ambitions to become serious people. Economics writer Kelly Evans is the host of the morning show, but she prefers to be known for her work in the paper, which is right in the WSJ’s wonky wheelhouse. While the show is still below the radar of even most business types, she hasn’t had to choose her public persona.

“Doing the News Hub videos hasn’t, as far as I can tell, affected my day-to-day reporting,” Evans says. “I’ve had people recognize me on the street or on the subway. But there hasn’t been much overlap in my daily reporting.”

As information converges on a digital platform, news organizations are starting to see that video is replacing photography as the attention-getting feature that differentiates their take on the news. It’s too soon to see the effect of video on the Journal’s overall viewership and revenue. But with an extensive operation that is still expanding, Kelly Evans may soon find it tough to keep her professional worlds apart.