| Jul 21, 2022

WSJ’s New Commerce Site Blurs Line Between News and Marketing

By further leveraging the Journal’s reputation to monetize reporting, Buy Side puts the onus on consumers to separate journalism from sales pitch.

While I’ve never kicked my feet up on the dining table and read a newspaper unironically, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t familiar with the Wall Street Journal. It is one of just a handful of news publications that are truly ubiquitous and have been for generations, despite their antiquated original medium. 

Central to the success of the Wall Street Journal is the circulation of 37 special editions that reach 35 countries in 10 languages, but what truly propelled it to globally recognized status was the introduction of WSJ.com in 1996, creating the first fully interactive digital news journal. Advertisements were present from the start, and it wasn’t long before The Journal began exploring new ways to monetize its share of the newswire. 

Content was placed behind a subscription paywall just months after the WSJ site was launched and it remains in place today, although the publication now uses artificial intelligence (AI) to determine how many free samples a reader can view before being asked to subscribe. This year, to further capitalize on its long-standing reputation as a trusted information source, the company introduced Buy Side from WSJ, which recently launched with a long list of consumer product reviews and affiliate partners already in tow. 

Why a Buy Side is Bad News

There’s no denying there have always been monetary influences in journalism but most are not worthy of being described as examples of corruption. Rather, what makes the addition of commerce sites so threatening to journalistic principles is that instead of practicing something secretive, malicious, or illegal, it introduces a brand-new bias that could be difficult to assess and is entirely permissible by law. 

Buy Side is not the first of its kind. Some years ago, The New York Times purchased Wirecutter, a popular consumer review website, for $30 million, and the acquisition proved so successful that the commerce site itself was recently placed behind a paywall. In the years since, Wirecutter has promised to keep its commerce and editorial sides strictly separate, declaring that it does not participate in or publish any sponsored content. 

That may leave the reader who briefly skims the Wirecutter guidelines with the impression that the New York Times stands to gain nothing from recommending products. Yet just one paragraph below that declaration, they detail their affiliate partnerships, followed by licensing opportunities, and then advertising slots all of which generate revenue as a direct result of the products that Wirecutter recommends. 


The Gray Area of Editorial Control

Based on the information shared by WSJ Chief Revenue Officer Josh Stinchcomb, Buy Side will take a very similar approach. Stinchcomb stressed that Buy Side will have its own staff of writers, editors, and subject-matter experts, in addition to freelance contributors, all of whom will be kept separate from the backend operations. In fact, according to Leslie Yazel, the editor and head of content at WSJ Commerce: “A writer won’t know how much money was made from an article they wrote.” Hmm … that’s a statement that reads like hot air. 

Yazel’s shaky attempt to reinforce WSJ’s promise that Buy Side’s recommendations will be made with no monetary influence does little to actually back up the claim. In reality, it is not the editorial team that stands to benefit from Buy Side but the publisher. Making a point to keep revenue a secret from the writers is null and void (unless, of course, they’re looking to avoid discussions about compensation). What actually matters is the amount of control The Journal retains. 

Great for Business, Questionable for Consumers

When asked why the Wall Street Journal wanted to launch Buy Side, Stinchcomb’s answer summed it up nicely. As he put it, The Journal’s business expertise gives it more credibility when making recommendations, especially with personal finance products. Plus, the hope is that traffic to Buy Side will help further amplify paid readership on WSJ.com. 

Unlike the editorial side of The Journal, Buy Side will be completely free to access, with the goal of attracting a larger audience through the paywall that protects other content. Stitchcomb added that Buy Side will help The Journal tap into new revenue streams and additional search-ad revenue in Google, stating: “We see this as a logical step for us to take.” 

At the time of launch, Buy Side already had over 50 articles and 250 products on the site, covering a multitude of categories from home gym equipment to credit cards. “We focus on products and services that readers are interested in,” the team stated. Of course, Buy Side also had a handful of affiliate partners already on board, including Amazon, Skimlinks, and Red Ventures. Yazel says they hope to partner directly with certain retailers and manufacturers going forward. 

However, when it comes to how products are selected, there was only a brief explanation: “Freelancers are given criteria to reference when making recommendations to ensure they align with The Journal’s editorial mission and standards.”

Drawing the Line Falls on Readers

As for what’s next, Stinchcomb said the The Journal doesn’t yet have plans to create and sell its own products but added that “anything is possible.” Meanwhile, Yazel says Buy Side has a growing presence across multiple social networks, a dedicated marketing newsletter, and more in the works. As those things launch, The Journal will be evaluating success based on traffic, return visits, sales conversions, and revenue. 

All of that is to say, as Buy Side takes off, it’s a wise time to remind consumers to think critically about where they are sourcing their information from and what those sources might have to gain. By doing your part to draw the line between commercialism and journalism, we can all help protect the integrity of our most reputable news sources.

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Sydney specializes in informational, research-driven projects that often tie into her passion for travel, wellness, and technology. view profile


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