August 19, 2016

Like many newspapers, The Wall Street Journal is betting that reader support will be a lynchpin of its business as print advertising continues to fade.

So Dow Jones, the Journal’s publisher, has staked out an ambitious target: Reach 3 million subscribers by the end of 2017.

To help achieve that goal, the Journal recently took two big steps. It tweaked its paywall, which has been in existence since went online 20 years ago, according to Nieman Lab. Now, non-subscribers can get a 24-hour “guest pass” by providing their email addresses, and subscribers will have the option of sharing articles for free on social media.

The second step? Appointing Kristin Heitmann general manager of WSJ Digital. In her role, Heitmann is charged with maximizing subscription revenue by coordinating the Journal’s marketing and ad sales efforts to ensure they’re making the most of the newspaper’s digital offerings.

“Previously, although we operated collaboratively, everybody had their own targets and their own businesses to run,” Heitmann said. “Nobody was looking holistically at the business and helping to prioritize what things needed to happen and when. So while everybody worked well together, I think there was a need for a new position to really tie everything together in a cohesive way.”

A big part of the effort to drive reader revenue involves a fundamental shift in the way the Journal thinks about people who pay to read its journalism, Heitmann said. Since the 2014 launch of its global membership program, WSJ+, the Journal has thought of its readers as members — people who have an enduring affinity with the newspaper, not just people who cough up a monthly subscription fee.

The shift toward membership has also been seen at other news organizations, including The Guardian, Gimlet Media and Columbia Journalism Review. At The Wall Street Journal, as elsewhere, membership means extra perks that reinforce the customers’ relationship with the newspaper, things like newsroom tours, exclusive content and special events.

“If you’re a member, you have a much more vested interest, you feel like more of a stakeholder in the products and the business versus if you’re just a transactional subscriber to something,” Heitmann said.

The redesigned paywall is part of that, too. By allowing subscribers to share links on social media, the hope is to turn the Journal’s consumers into evangelists for its brand. By giving out 24-hour passes and collecting email addresses, the Journal is establishing a tenuous connection with new readers that could pay dividends down the line.

This strategy of getting readers to gradually deepen their commitment has been implemented elsewhere, including at The Washington Post, which has developed a customer-engagement funnel to convert drive-by readers to paying subscribers.

At the Journal, that strategy includes providing readers with various “touch points,” including social networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, Heitmann said.

“We definitely want to encourage trial and sampling of content,” Heitmann said. “We’re looking to expand social share, for instance, and access to our social platforms, that’s what we’re really trying to do to ensure people who wouldn’t have visited us directly are able to get a good sampling of what WSJ content is like and then dive in through different touch points.”

So far, paywall changes have only been implemented on the Journal’s website, but changes to the newspaper’s other properties, including its apps and newsletters, could be forthcoming, Heitmann said. The only certainty: After 20 years of an unchanging paywall model, the Journal is planning to tweak its offerings more regularly in response to feedback from its audience.

“I think the new normal for WSJ is about testing and learning and adapting,” Heitmann said. “We don’t want to be in this one-model world anymore. We want to be changing and adapting based on what we learn works for our members and our products. This, I would say, is the first step of a 100-step journey to really see us, over the coming year, change different things and tweak the model as we see what works.”

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Benjamin Mullin was formerly the managing editor of He also previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow,…
Benjamin Mullin

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