Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
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“The audience growth has been too good to let it go away”: How the Wall Street Journal is adapting its live journalism in a virtual age

One of the Wall Street Journal’s newer projects is the Live Journalism team; a group of journalists who build agendas and source guests for the publisher’s events. They operate with a start-up mentality inside the well-oiled machine of the Journal’s newsroom.

The Live Journalism team, like events professionals all around the world, had to swiftly adapt when the pandemic struck. Kim Last, The Wall Street Journal’s Editor of Live Journalism and Special Content spoke to us about what it was like, and how the WSJ are planning their events going forward.

The DNA of an engaging virtual event

Before March 2020, the Live Journalism portfolio at the Wall Street Journal consisted of in-person events that would take place around the world. These ranged from CEO Council gatherings in places like London and Tokyo, to the Women in the Workplace forum in San Francisco, and their flagship Future of Everything Festival.

“The measurement of success was butts in seats, and making sure that room had the buzz and energy,” Last explained. “You wanted to be, to quote Hamilton, ‘in the room where it happened.’”

But all of that was turned on its head once the pandemic hit. “We had to quickly and swiftly put a pause on everything that we did and say, what does it mean to be virtual? Do people actually want to tune in and watch webinars?” said Last.

The Live Journalism team’s primary aim was to find guests and set agendas which would be ‘newsmaking’; from business leaders and celebrities to politicians and authors. They would then build coverage around what those guests would say on stage, breaking stories exclusive to the Journal.

That aim has been at the forefront of Last’s plans for the virtual events. Over the past year, they have had high-profile newsmaking guests ranging from Elon Musk and Eric Schmidt to Sarah Cooper and Jerome Powell.

Keeping a level of interaction has also been important. “We’ve experimented with having attendees send us pre-recorded questions,” said Last, explaining that this helps spark interest in the agenda beforehand. “We’re also experimenting in bringing on attendees to ask live questions. That’s really important to us… and is one way that we’re really trying to break through the Zoom boxes we’re all currently living in.”

Skilling up and showing up

It’s not all been plain sailing, though. Like many event professionals, the Live Journalism team had to pivot their core skills from handling hotel logistics and menus to managing event platforms and tech checks with guests spread around the world.

There have also been challenges with audience development. Most of the virtual events have been free to WSJ subscribers, but Last noted that there were expectation adjustments when it came to working out how many people would actually show up for a free event.

“We started to see that there’s at least a 50% attrition rate, so if we want 5,000 people to tune in to this, then we must make sure we’ve got at least 10,000 people registered,” she said. 

The team have been experimenting with the right timings for their events in order to reduce this attrition. “If we have a programme that is designed for working professionals who have kids at home, it’s a really bad idea to do it at 5pm,” she explained. “We’re going to make sure that’s a lunchtime programme, and make sure our speakers are really targeting that audience.”

Festivals in the virtual space

All the lessons learned over the past year are converging in the WSJ’s flagship Future of Everything Festival, held virtually later this week. In a normal year, the Festival attracts over 90 speakers and thousands of attendees, but now it’s virtual, it will be bigger than ever before.

Last is aiming to have over 50,000 registered subscribers log on during the three days. “We’ve kept a lot of the DNA of what the Festival used to be in-person,” she said. This means back-to-back newsmaker conversations, and a mix of big-name guests and rising voices.

As part of this, they will be looking to create a networking experience – something many publishers have struggled to do successfully in the virtual space. Their ‘Tinder for business’ model will see attendees identify the topic areas they’re interested in or work in, and be matched with like-minded attendees. 

“My colleagues are really thinking deeply about the networking experience in all of this,” she explained. “We’re finding ways for people to find connections if they happen to have an interest in a shared area, or shared industry.”

The WSJ is charging for access to the Festival. There are a range of options and price points, from a $195 half-day pass to  $695 for access to the full three days. 

It’s a much cheaper price point than the in-person event used to be, but has been carefully chosen so “you feel like you can either cover it yourself, or maybe your company can reimburse you for it,” said Last. The payment also makes it more likely people will show up and participate.

But WSJ members receive complimentary tickets as a subscription benefit; something that the team are experimenting with for the first time as a way of encouraging engagement with other products.

The halo of virtual, and a hybrid future

Although Last is looking forward to bringing the WSJ’s Live Journalism to in-person events again, she says there have been definite benefits to their year of virtual events.

“While we physically aren’t together, the halo and reach of the Journal and our live events is larger than it’s ever been before. We’re finding really unique ways to engage with our audience, to grow our audience, and to dominate parts of the news cycle with the questions and sessions that we design for our stages.”

They are already experimenting with hybrid events. As part of the Festival, the WSJ are hosting a drive-in experience in Brooklyn, building on the popularity of outdoor cinemas. There will be a screening of Oscar-nominated biographical drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” and a discussion with the screenwriters.

The $75-per-car screening sold out far in advance. “Embracing the things that didn’t get shut down during the pandemic…really elevates the experience,” Last explained.

Access to guests has been another benefit. Without the commitment of travel and schedules, it has been much easier to get high profile newsmakers to show up virtually. As a result, Last anticipates finding a ‘middle ground’ for their events in the future.

“The audience growth has just been too good to let it go away,” she surmised. “It is a privilege, at the end of the day, to be able to expense a ticket, to travel, to spend on the hotel. [Hybrid events] allow us to be way more inclusive in a way that we weren’t before, because it just wasn’t the norm.”

“It will take time for festivals and concerts to return. But the big question will be, what will you do for that digital audience? What are you serving up to them?”


Listen to the full episode featuring Kim Last here [interview begins at 17:40]:

Republished with kind permission of Media Voices, a weekly look at all the news and views from across the media world