Wall Street Journal shares 4 steps toward reinventing newsroom innovation

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, United States


The Wall Street Journal’s newsroom innovation team is tasked with prototyping new products, story formats, and tools.

“The way I like to describe the work that we do is we try to answer the question, should we do it?” Newsroom Innovation Chief Robin Kwong said during an INMA members-only Webinar on Wednesday. “There are lots of great ideas out there for potential tools, potential features, potential formats — a million things that we could do, and often the hardest question is deciding what we should and should not be building properly, scaling, and supporting.”

As the WSJ newsroom innovation chief since December 2019, Kwong said his team is small one of developers and designers that builds prototypes to empower newsroom innovation, putting them in front of an audience, getting feedback, and reviewing the analytics. They are part of a larger department called digital experiences and strategy. 

The second part of the team’s mission is culture change. “Our goal isn’t really to own innovation at The Wall Street Journal. What we want to do is actually spread innovation, to spread the spirit of experimentation, but also the processes and the right way of doing experimentation through the organisation.”

He acknowledged this can sound rather abstract, so he shared four examples to illustrate what his team does.

1. Being nimble and injecting momentum

There are times when the newsroom innovation team is a very fast-acting implementation team. An example of this happened in early March when the coronavirus was first starting to spread. WSJ developed a lot of content around the pandemic and wanted to make that content available on its Web site for free.

“The Wall Street Journal has a rather hard paywall, and it’s a rare situation when we decide to make articles free to read, and I think even rarer to make a whole wave of articles free and actually commissioning articles that we think will be helpful to people as a free resource,” Kwong said.

This public-focused decision was the right one but presented several challenges. Chief among these were expectation and discover. Because readers know WSJ has a hard paywall, how would they know about the free content and how to access it?

“That challenge was brought to my team, and within 48 hours we made a very simple navigation bar that sits across the top of the home page,” Kwong said.

A new coronavirus content navigation bar illustrates how The Wall Street Journal works with agility.
A new coronavirus content navigation bar illustrates how The Wall Street Journal works with agility.

Admittedly, the first version wasn’t perfect. “It left a lot to be desired,” he said. The team worked with the Web platform product team in charge of technology. Together, they made iterative improvements to the original coronavirus resource bar to improve the design, load speed, and improving the analytics.

2. Taking riskier bets — intentionally

“When you talk about an innovation team, the thing that comes to mind is a team that has the space and the mindset to be able to take riskier bets, to do things that are a little bit out there,” Kwong said. “But we don’t just do things for the sake of it. We don’t do things just because they sound cool or are fun.”

He highlighted the WSJ Jigsaw Puzzle as an example of this. People might wonder why The Wall Street Journal would have a jigsaw puzzle, but Kwong said there are actually three answers to that.

  • They knew from previous research that puzzle playing was a very engaging and loyalty/habit building piece of content with their audience.
  • During the COVID lockdown, different types of content were in demand, particularly at-home entertainment and relaxation. Physical jigsaw puzzles were often sold out.
  • They thought this might be a way to get people curious about WSJ that might not otherwise necessarily come to the site and discover the non-financial content they might not expect.
The WSJ Jigsaw Puzzle is an example of how the team takes riskier bets, intentionally.
The WSJ Jigsaw Puzzle is an example of how the team takes riskier bets, intentionally.

“This is an illustration of the value of having a team that is both able to take a slightly unorthodox approach to building audience, but also sticks to a certain sort of rigour and attention to how we go about it,” Kwong said.

3. Innovating ourselves and how the team works

The team constantly evaluates what and how they are doing things. After Kwong had been in the job a few months, his team had scored some wins, but they realised they also were a little too tactical, reactive, and project-based: “We thought, what if we focused our efforts and spent a concentrated period of time, about six weeks, just focusing on one area of innovating our story formats.”

This meant looking at what formats were currently available, which ones resonated with audiences, and where the current WSJ formats were not meeting their needs.

The Wall Street Journal newsroom innovation team created new story formats.
The Wall Street Journal newsroom innovation team created new story formats.

Kwong called it a “six-week hackathon.” One format they took a look at was how to make stock market stories more accessible to readers who are not financial experts, without turning off the regular readers who already know the basic concepts of market and finance.

“We thought, what if we could have an optional, expandable section that could add a bit of context and explanation, demystify some terms and concepts?”

Another example was the multi-media annotated transcripts, which took a press conference or interview and automatically generated a transcript using speech-to-text technology. Editors would then clean that up and highlight key moments.

The team also developed an interactive, expandable Q&A format that made it easier for readers to skim by clicking on questions to expand the answers. The reader could also click “open all” to expand all the questions or click on a link to go directly to a specific answer.

4. Finding different ways to measure success

The new Q&A format also provided a different way for the WSJ to measure success.

Previously, WSJ had published quite a lot of standard, static Q&As. “They were doing really well,” Kwong said. “They were getting lots of search traffic, they were evergreen, people returned to them. But there was room for improvement.”

One of the problems identified was that these Q&A formats could often be very long, making it difficult for the readers to find specific answers they were interested in. Additionally, looking at how readers used the new expandable Q&A format would give WSJ some insight into how people consumed its content.

Kwong shared the insights the team wanted to find out:

  • Are people using the new Q&A format? Are they clicking on questions to expand them and, if so, how many and how often?
  • Do members and non-members engage differently with this format?
  • Do people engage differently with the format on mobile vs. desktop?
  • Did people prefer the old style of having all the answers visible from the start?
  • How many people use the “open all” button?
  • Are people sharing individual answers?

“That gave us a pretty decent picture of whether this was a good format or not, and whether this was useful for people or not, and to what extent people were interacting with it,” Kwong said. “Generally, it was positive. But we thought there were better ways to answer the question of whether this was a useful format. It lay in not only looking at the analytics data, but also doing some old-fashioned reporting, almost.”

The newsroom innovation team performs qualitative user insights on the products it creates.
The newsroom innovation team performs qualitative user insights on the products it creates.

The team did some qualitative user research on the new Q&A format through A/B testing in a talk-aloud forum session with users.

“That was really interesting,” Kwong shared, “because I think it got us into a deeper insight into why one was preferable to the other. What really came through for us was what people liked about the new version was this feeling of control. They were able to customise how they viewed the information, basically.”

Another, slightly more nebulous, finding was that the new format simply felt more digital, like something that would be coming from a digital media company rather than a physical newspaper.

These findings helped WSJ develop new ways to evaluate success, to be more transparent, and to share more about product development and audience engagement across the organisation, as well as publicly, Kwong said. He directed INMA members to the WSJ DXS Medium blog, where they can read about the WSJ digital experiences and strategy.

The WSJ DXS blog on Medium shares insights from the WSJ digital strategy.
The WSJ DXS blog on Medium shares insights from the WSJ digital strategy.

Where do we go from here?

The newsroom innovations team is still young and evolving, and Kwong said they are still trying to figure out what some of their big, thorny questions are.

“I’d like to share some of these questions with you. These are things I struggle with and grapple with.”

  • How do we learn quickly?
  • What is the right environment for experimentation?
  • What problems should we be tackling?

“Figuring out those three questions is what we’re focusing on,” Kwong concluded.


INMA: How free are you to experiment? Do you need approval from the editorial team, and are you linked to the overall strategy of the company?

Kwong: We are free, and we are also accountable in a lot of ways. We try to be very transparent about what we’re working on. The Journal is a very matrixed organisation. So when we take on a project, part of what we think about is if there’s an editorial need for it and in what way this might link to the overall Journal strategy and goals. At the start of a project, we might not know exactly how it will contribute to these things, but we need to at least see that there’s a path towards having an impact.

INMA: Do you create prototypes before or after you ask the question, should we do it?

Kwong: There is some thought that goes into if this is something worth looking into before we start building a prototype. So I guess the answer would be, before we start building anything we try to have a sense of if it’s the right area to play around in. And after we build the prototype, hopefully we generate enough data and insight for the company as a whole to decide if it’s something worth doing.

INMA: How do you source ideas from the newsroom, and how do you go about prioritising your backlog?

Kwong: The coronavirus and working from home has thrown this into a bit of disarray, but we have something called the ideas portal, which is an internal site where any reporter or editor can submit an idea to. Before lockdown we would have large meeting to discuss the ideas that have come in through the portal. In terms of managing our backlog, it’s a process of figuring out if there’s an editorial need and feasibility for it.

INMA: How are revenue and content teams linked?

Kwong: There’s quite a strict wall between editorial and commercial. I guess where they really come together is in the broad strategic goals that are set across the company. In broad terms, the Journal wants to grow its readership, it wants to have more diverse readers, and it wants to engage its readers to have more habit-building, frequent returns. I guess where it comes together is we decided that to hit these goals, we advance both our editorial and revenue goals, things that drove both sides of the business.

About Shelley Seale

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