Remembering the WSJ Health Blog, and What It Can Teach Us

In March of 2007, I wrote a note to the staff here about the emergence of a new health blog that I thought had the potential to upend the health reporting world. The outlet was the WSJ Health Blog, and it promised to marry the Journal’s excellent reporting with a certain degree of take-no-prisoners snark and honesty. The Health Blog’s first writer, Jacob Goldstein, told me early on that his charge was to write “all of the things that we know as true but can’t really say in the paper.”

It was half-threat, half-promise. Jacob was cranking out a half-dozen posts on a busy day, covering the silly and the serious, and leaving no stone unturned. Outrageous executive compensation was called outrageous. Goofy television commercials were called goofy. Drug reps were compared to Faustus. And the perspective of everyone from key researchers to hospital CEOs were put on display. It was a fun read and an important read. Everyone tuned in.

That was 2007. Jacob is long gone. So is his boss, Scott Hensley (who has brought the spirit of Health Blog to NPR’s Shots blog). Over time, the blog became understaffed, and the tone had slowly morphed from a saucy, comprehensive teller of truths to a good-but-not-great source for basic consumer health news, with a handful of biopharma briefs. Yesterday, the WSJ announced that they were killing the endeavor after a 5-year-run.

The Health Blog helped create the modern health-reporting landscape, and it’s hard not to see echoes of Jacob and Scott’s original vision in Shots, in the online work that Matt Herper does at Forbes, in newspaper health blogs in places like Boston and Los Angeles. (And I was remiss in not noting Ed Silverman’s Pharmalot here in my initial draft. Pharmalot wasn’t directly influenced by Health Blog — it launched actually launched just ahead of the Health Blog in the heady late-winter of 2007 — but the competition between the two unquestionably strengthened the pharma media as a whole. Pharmalot is still going strong, a testament to the power of Ed’s years of focus.)

But good work and an impressive parent outlet is no guarantee of lasting success. The Health Blog outlasted the New York Times’ Prescriptions effort (shuttered in February) as well as health blogging efforts at USA Today.

And while we should take a moment to look back and mourn what was and could have been, there are three mammoth lessons for those of us on the marketing/communications side who are, increasingly, touting brand-created content as the Next Big Thing. But the Health Blog shows that “brand journalism” isn’t as easy as it looks. Here’s why:

  • Blogs are Beasts That Must Always Be Fed: Creating great content, day-in-and-day-out, is a tough, tough road. The Wall Street Journal is a jewel in a News Corp. empire that could hit $10 billion in profit this year. They have some of the best writers in the world. And they couldn’t prioritize the blog. Can your company do better?
  • People Matter: During salad days at the Health Blog, the blog had a definite voice and a definite perspective, thanks to Jacob and Scott. When they left, some of that voice was lost, and while the writing and reporting remained top-notch, it served as a reminder that the best social media efforts are always associated with a person (Scott Monty at Ford, Frank Eliason at Comcast, even Arianna Huffington at her eponymous news site). Will your brand journalism have a recognizable face?
  • Own a Niche: When Health Blog launched, they owned a certain topical niche: the business of health, writ large. This set them apart from what was then — and is now — the much more competitive space of examining every piece of consumer health news. But as time went on, the topics covered were less and less distinct from the offerings of a dozen other reputable sites. And while the quality was never in doubt, the lack of focus meant that there were fewer surprises. If you’re going to get in the content game, what will you be able to provide better than anyone else?

Of course, the archives of the Health Blog are still available, so take a moment today and remember. To get you started, here is the welcome post, from way back in 2007.

Brian Reid
Brian Reid
  • Thanks for the mention. I actually think that voice and perspective are the most important things in the current environment. Frequency is important, but less important than standing for something. Increasingly, readers follow people, not brands. As I’ve said a in a number of places, RIP Health Blog. Long live Scott Hensley.

    • Matt — Thanks for mentioning the “people not brands” concept. This feels like the sea change that’s swamping journalism (Forbes has actually done a good job of harnessing it). Now, when I talk about stories, I make reference less and less to the outlet, and more and more to the author. It’s not a “WaPo story,” it’s a “Sarah Kliff” story. It’s not a “Discover post,” it’s an “Ed Yong” post. Etc.

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  • It’s gratifying to see that what Jacob and I were trying to do came across. You captured it well. The blog was fun, hard and worth it. Thanks for your insightful and kind post.

    • Scott — You covered business long enough to know that a CEO or a start-up founder that had been successful once was — about half the time — just lucky. But a CEO who built two businesses successfully was likely to be a real-deal business genius. With both the golden years of Health Blog *and* Shots on your resume, you’ve pretty much established yourself as one of the godfathers of health blogging. On behalf of readers everywhere: keep it up.

  • Ed Silverman

    I remember racing to launch Pharmalot in January 2007 because I knew Scott was getting ready to do the same thing. And the competition was fun; among other things, it helped me keep my focus on pharma, rather than trying to broaden. Of course, they had the word ‘health’ in their brand, so that was a slightly different challenge, and an opportunity, for them. But Scott and Jacob made it work.

    They did a terrific job and, in fact, helped shape what was to come through a combination of reporting and voice, both of which remain crucial. When I think back to 2007 and 2008, their site and Pharmalot, which was owned by The Star-Ledger of New Jersey at the time, were among a few nascent efforts to bring the whole notion of social media and blogs and journalism to a new place. That’s my modest view of things, anyway.

    I don’t have any inside insights about what prompted the WSJ to pull out the corporate axe, but big papers may not understand how to monetize these vehicles. At the time that I left the Ledger, which no longer owns Pharmalot, the marketing folks were at a loss to jumpstart revenue, even though traffic was growing rapidly. Its challenging under every possible circumstance, but requires an effort that marketing departments may not fully grasp. Or the sites simply doesn’t show up on the radar in a big way because these aren’t the biggest priority. Oh well, RIP, as they say.

    • Ed — I was derelict in not mentioning Pharmalot in my initial post (an error I’ve since corrected), as you and Health Blog (along with Matt Herper and Adam Feuerstein) really shaped much of what followed in terms of voice and topic.

      And thanks for the thoughts on monitization. The inability to turn high-quality, engaged readers into a modest revenue stream feels like an abject failure of creativity on someone’s part. Because in 2008, I would have paid to read Health Blog. I would have paid to hear Jacob and Scott speak (especially if they were debating you). I would have paid for special content. I would have paid for a tote bag. Now, granted, there aren’t a ton of people like me. But we are out there …

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