It’s been 33 years since Dow Jones launched The Wall Street Journal in Asia. In that time the group has established a hefty presence across the region, with offices in nine Asian cities including Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Seoul, Singapore and Tokyo.
But with jumpy new owners at the helm, a changing regional media landscape and the newspaper business undergoing even more radical changes, things are certainly heating up at its Wan Chai headquarters.
Since News Corp acquired Dow Jones and the jewel in its crown The Wall Street Journal, the company has expanded its editorial products into India and Japan, rolled out a glossy lifestyle magazine WSJ. and made a series of investments in its digital products.
This includes a redesign of its Chinese-language website, the launch in February of an expanded Asia-specific portal asia.wsj.com and the unveiling of an India web portal in the same month. Its expansion is also reaching into new business avenues such as the WSJ.com Mobile Reader and, more recently, local language editions.
Heading up the group’s commercial operations and its aggressive expansion across the region is Christine Brendle, publisher of The Wall Street Journal Asia and managing director of Dow Jones Consumer Media Group Asia.
From her office in Hong Kong, Brendle is leading News Corp’s charge across Asia, with, it seems, an open cheque book. Not once, she claims, has its New York owners turned down her approaches for expansion, even as the advertising markets of Asia have taken a pummeling.
“That is what is really encouraging,” Brendle says.
“These are obviously difficult times but there is not a single person telling me to slow down or don’t do this investment you have planned for this country, it’s simply not happening. Not a single time have I been told ‘no you can’t do that’.”
So what is driving this need for change? Well, Rupert Murdoch mostly, and his ambition to expand News’ Asia operation. But it’s also major change in the pan-regional media markets of Asia that have, some say, shifted irrevocably.
The rise of domestic markets across Asia is turning the balance of power from a regional to local focus. India and China are emerging as hugely important media markets and the demand for online and mobile offerings is forcing the WSJ and its nearest rivals like the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune to change their business accordingly.
“When you look at the evolution of the markets in Asia, the pan-regional segment used to be king in the late 1980’s and pretty much all of the 90’s, but at the same time domestic markets have been growing massively.
“If you look at the Chinese market it has gone from being nowhere to the third largest ad market in the world,” Brendle says.
She argues that online and the possibilities it offers, namely the local language capabilities, are giving rise to a whole new world of readers.
“There has never been so many potential readers for us and that is great news for the future.”
And almost all of those readers, she adds, are online.
“Using online is a nice way to break into new markets. It’s a medium that is more reactive. At the same time there is no doubt this is accelerating the transformation of the industry and that the component of online is going to grow.”
Local language, she says, is now much stronger. “As a news brand we see that it is really important for us to be accessible in local languages.” But are the advertisers jumping on board?
The launch of its asia.wsj.com was backed by HSBC and the company says its online revenues, driven mostly by a paid subscription model for its website has proven to be a money spinner. Last year the company announced an 88% jump in online subscriptions.
“It’s a bit of a paradox as you have a lot of people in the trade who are not typical Journal readers, so we need to spend a bit of time explaining what the brand stands for and why it is important. “We have to fight this perception that we are not creative and that we are a little bit stubborn in the way we do business. We have to work with media planners who are not our readers.”
Despite the growth of its digital portals the importance of its print product has not diminished, but Brendle admits that the environment for print is a lot more challenging.
“At the moment readership and circulation in print is really growing, but advertisers are holding back. The chances are we’ll be benefiting nicely when the rebound does occur; and there will be a rebound.”
But the big question on everyone’s lips has been what’s changed since Murdoch took over. While there are noticeable aesthetic changes taking place at the WSJ, Brendle says behind the scenes there is a lot of work underway to make the various Dow Jones brands work a lot closer.
“Since the acquisition from News Corp there has been much more emphasis on making all of our brands work together, on the news site you see that happening all the time. There will be even more cooperation between print and digital,” she says.
For now though, she says Dow Jones is more focused on putting resources behind its growing China operation, which the group is hoping to expand via an aggressive editorial approach.
“For us, the resources we put behind our operations in China are news related and having the ability to put up more content. Our approach is to consolidate our traffic and build the product so it’s an easier sell. It seems to be working.”
And despite the economic slowdown, Brendle is confident the Journal can retain its status as the largest news gathering force in Asia, which is refreshing to hear from a commercial leader.
“I don’t think that’s going to be threatened because this is what creates value in our company. I’m confident that will stay.”