Should he or shouldn’t he? Ever since Rupert Murdoch finally wrangled his way into a buyout of Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, there has been rampant speculation on whether Murdoch will lift the pay curtain at WSJ.com, making it a free site. While I’ve begged The New York Times to end their TimesSelect pay wall for op-ed columnists (and word is they will), I don’t believe the case is the same with WSJ.com.
WSJ.com offers a mix of business and political news articles and editorials, blogs and video, much of it behind a pay wall since the site’s inception. WSJ.com has long been the exception to the supposed rule online that breaking news should be free — or even that everything should be free. Journal content is targeted at a business audience that has the money to pay, or can expense it through their company. That subscription revenue will come to around $65 million in 2007, according to Lehman Brothers analyst Doug Anmuth, with about $75 million in ad revenues.
The business question is whether the Journal can make back the loss of $65 million in online subscription revenues — and likely more losses in print subscriptions — by getting more people onto a free WSJ.com site to serve up and sell more ads. The social media question is whether WSJ.com is losing out on all the blog-link love and conversation online by putting up its pay wall.
But one thing that’s overlooked in all the arguments pro and con is that WSJ.com currently isn’t a totally pay site, with more and more content becoming free each day. There was one free feature per day, and that’s been raised to a few free features each day. (You can see a running list of Editor’s Picks that are free to the non-paying public.) A list of “more free content” on the site includes video, blogs, forums, interactives, editorials, and the new All Things Digital spin-off site. Plus, there have been “open houses” when the whole site goes free for a few days, and you can often find syndicated Journal stories on other free sites online.
In a way, making the site free would just be an extension of what’s already happening with most new features. But Murdoch has hedged so far, saying that his study of the situation found that changing to free would be a wash, with the loss of subscription money made up with more ad dollars. I decided to sketch out the various reasons WSJ.com would benefit from going free or staying pay.
Why WSJ.com Should Go Free
> Business portal dreams. Murdoch has designs on creating the business news portal, something done already to a certain extent at Yahoo Finance, AOL Finance and MSN Money. But the combination of Dow sites such as WSJ.com, MarketWatch and Barron’s, combined with the upcoming Fox Business News cable channel could create a new multi-platform powerhouse.
> Join the online conversation. Having a free site would mean more links from bloggers, more social bookmarks for content, more Google search traffic, and more ways that people would annotate and argue about the great content produced by Journal reporters and editors.
> Increased ad money. Opening the floodgates would mean a huge increase in traffic at the WSJ.com site, which would mean more page views and more ads. Analyst Anmuth believes the current business news portals will get $350 million to $450 million in ad revenues this year, a big opportunity for Murdoch to grab.
> Less infrastructure costs. Only the folks working at the Journal know these costs, but there is obviously an infrustructure around marketing pay subscriptions to WSJ.com, processing them, and bothering people to renew. That cost would be eliminated with no pay wall; however, there’s still a chance WSJ.com would charge for other premium features such as archives or specialized business intelligence, which would require a similar infrastructure.
Why WSJ.com Should Stay Pay
> A mix of revenue streams helps in the next ad recession. One of the weaknesses of the dot-com boom was the overreliance on advertising revenues. Companies that diversify with paid content can survive when advertising goes into a down cycle, which it typically does. Even when advertising money dries up, companies will continue to pay for business news from the WSJ.com.
> Once you go free, it’s hard to go back.Some newspaper sites have tried to add pay walls after having their sites free, and had trouble signing people up. It has worked for the Journal because they’ve always charged for content. Once they lift that veil, it will be very hard to go back to start charging for it.
> A pay site has a more affluent demographic. Currently, the Journal can charge advertisers a premium. That’s because the site’s audience, while smaller than other media sites, is a “better” audience because it is more serious, affluent and business-oriented. Opening the pay wall lets in the common drive-by surfers, changing the site’s overall demographics and likely lowering the rate it can charge advertisers.
> Keep WSJ.com differentiated from MarketWatch. Dow Jones already has a free ad-supported business site in MarketWatch, so why would it want another free site to compete with it? There’s a good chance that MarketWatch is already driving subscriptions for the Journal and WSJ.com, so you lose that promotional synergy by making WSJ.com free.
Usually, I fancy myself as a Jarvisonian, shouting down The Man and chanting Free the Journal from the shackles of paid subscriptions. But in this case, I think Murdoch needs to think long and hard about how he goes about changing the Journal and its subscription model. Adding more reporters and international coverage? Great. Downplaying print for online? Excellent. Creating a dominant business news portal? Fine. Opening the pay wall? Tough call. There are good points on both sides of this issue. Here are some out in the blogosphere:
A Vote Against Setting WSJ.com Free, Another Vote For at Silicon Alley Insider
Can Murdoch Charge for WSJ.com and Give It Away Too? at NYTimes.com’s Bits blog
If the Wall Street Journal Were Free at Rebuilding Media
If WSJ.com Was Set Free; The Numbers at Stake at PaidContent
Free the Journal at BuzzMachine
New York Times To Fold TimesSelect Presaging The Death of Paid Content at Publishing 2.0
Set the WSJ Free! at A VC
The death of paid content? at Yelvington.com
What do you think? Should WSJ.com become a free site or stay pay? Or is there a different way the Journal could charge for content while also opening up more of the site? Share your thoughts in the comments below.