We’re not even a month into 2010 and The Economist has already declared it to be “The year of the pay wall.”

“There are plenty of examples of paid content thriving even when free alternatives are available,” according to the magazine. “Punters are happy to pay for multichannel television even though commercial broadcast television is free. Such alternatives thrive because they offer desirable content. One considerable advantage to building a pay wall is that it forces newspapers to think hard about what their customers (as opposed to their advertisers) might really want.”

That’s a positive spin on pay walls. However, a recent Ipsos/PHD survey found that 55 percent of consumers “would be very or extremely unlikely to pay for online newspaper or magazine content.”

The Wall Street Journal is cited as an example of the right way to build and maintain a pay wall. Owner Rupert Murdoch, who acquired the paper after it built its wall, has said that people are willing to pay for content in newspapers, and thus people will be willing to pay for content online.

Murdoch called Google, Microsoft, and Ask.com “people which simply pick up everything and run with it and steal our stories.” (Though the paper does allow some Google-referred users to read some WSJ articles for free.) The paper, nonetheless, still wants to see its content linked and cited via social media. And it wants to be part of the conversations taking place on Facebook, Twitter and other places. How can it engage with social media when it locks its journalism behind a pay wall?

Alan Murray

In an interview, Journal deputy managing editor Alan Murray said the paper doesn’t want to rely on one source of traffic, meaning Google. He also noted that three of the major social media platforms — Facebook, Digg, and Twitter — are among WSJ’s top 20 referrers. Thirty percent comes from Yahoo and Google.

“We have a strong brand,” Murray said. “Half of our traffic comes through the front door.”

Murray said social media is at present a comparatively small source of traffic. On the other hand, he also spoke of its potential to drive readers who could eventually become paid subscribers.

Examples of WSJ’s Social Media Activities

Though it can’t promote and share the content created and then locked down on its website, the paper has worked to incorporate social media. Last year, Murray interviewed Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner during a “Digg Dialogg.” Geithner answered questions submitted and voted on by Digg users.

Murray also created a Future of News Twitter List, a “list of top tweeters discussing the future of news.” Murray said he uses Twitter Lists to recommend the best Twitter sources within a particular niche, and added that some of those sources are Journal staff members. That helps promote the Journal’s work because the staffers often talk about and link to their work on Twitter.

The Wall Street Journal was also one of the first organizations to use the Loomia Facebook App to show users which WSJ stories were read by their friends. (They eventually took it down because of performance issues.) Murray disclosed that the paper is in the process of closing a new partnership with Facebook, though he won’t reveal details.

He also said the WSJ is developing social applications in-house. These will include widgets to highlight related and contextual content, in addition to its iPhone and BlackBerry apps.

Of course, all this content promoted through social media is meant to get readers to buy an online subscription to WSJ.com. Murray said that the Journal’s business model of providing free peripheral content to sell its “core business in financial coverage” is the future of news.

Newsday’s Pay Wall Goes Up, Traffic Drops

The WSJ has had years to develop a strategy to promote and share its content from behind the pay wall. If this is indeed the “year of the pay wall,” many other organizations are going to have to learn to do the same.

After New York’s Newsday locked most of its content behind a paywall, its web traffic dropped by 21 percent. On top of that, longtime Newsday columnist, Saul Friedman, resigned over the decision to charge. One of the reasons he cited for his resignation was that a pay wall would prevent him from sending his column to people who don’t subscribe to Newsday.


An editor wasn’t made available to comment on Newsday’s strategy in an interview, but its website prominently promotes the paper’s presence on major social media platforms. Newsday currently runs a Facebook fan page with over 800 fans, and the publication also maintains a Facebook profile for Newsday founder Alicia Patterson, called Alicia P. Newsday. Newsday’s Twitter account is followed by over 600 users.

When asked about its strategy for social media promotion from behind the pay wall, a Newsday spokesperson replied by email to note that a “share” button, which allows visitors to submit content to various social sites, is available above each story.

The question, however, is who’ll be clicking on that button now that the content is locked down?

Neal Rodriguez is Managing Director of Shovecom, a full-service hybrid New York interactive agency where he helps drive colossal influxes of traffic to increase revenue for some of the biggest web properties on the planet while pulling his son’s Hot Wheels off his keyboard in Queens, New York. Neal also features some of the brightest minds in cyberspace including thought-leaders in social media marketing and search engine optimization on nealrodriguez.com. And he writes for the Huffington Post. Follow Neal on Twitter.