How WSJ Uses Social Media from Behind a Pay Wall

    by Neal Rodriguez
    January 12, 2010
    WSJ's Alan Murray interviewed Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner during a Digg Dialogg.

    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.”

    We have a strong brand. Half of our traffic comes through the front door." - Alan Murray

    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.

    Tagged: alan murray newsday pay wall social media marketing wall street journal
    • A recent study showed that users, especially in the middle east are open to see more advertising than paying for content. But still, I think there ways to promote paid content if it is worth it.

    • Great post Neal, always excelllent information.


    • Personally I think they are fighting an up-hill battle trying to charge money for free news but if they are having success then I applaud them. Their readership should definitely have the money shell out especially if brokerages pay the fee and not the individual traders.

    • Kim

      I actually understand the need to have good content paid for. I’m not sure society is improved by getting lots and lots of free info that isn’t actually good. If the content is truly better than what is available for free then it is worth it. The problem has been that the content the newspapers and magazines were delivering weren’t as good as other options or their biases drastically reduced the interest in their publications. Who is at fault for that?

      So I’d pay but for only certain kinds of info…like that I couldn’t find elsewhere. Right now info is flying around at the speed of light…it still takes sifting to get to anything thats really worth repeating, WSJ included.

    • @Web Design Lebanon well the best type of paid content, imho, is that which provides some type of return on your payment for the content like an industry-specific publication which helps you further your career. the payment is then sold as an investment.

      @Rafael Montilla gracias, Rafael! hope to see you soon.

      @Marc most definitely; getting your firm to foot the bill for a publication which may be deemed as a necessary business expense is a great way to market paid content.

      @Kim well, i raised that point with the WSJ and Murray stated that such content which could be found elsewhere is supplementary and is available for free on WSJ; however, their core financial news product is available for a fee – or as most know, by a google and a click ;)

    • I think it’s crucial for the media to develop a strategy to work around people not wanting to pay for content – the more they add value to providing people with a social platform for discussion, which is not traditionally available in the media, the more willing they’ll be able to pay for it. Excellent article, thanks!

    • Dave in MN

      Consumers are already maxed out with the high monthly fees the now pay for TV, Internet, cell phones, etc.

      In these more austere times, consumers don’t have an appetite for more fees, especially given the free access to information online has been the working model for about 15 years now.

      Find a way to bundle online news content by partnering with ISPs (i.e., channels on cable TV) to bring more value to the internet pipe you have to your house and the ISPs will have a competitive advantage and Murdoch still gets his pound of flesh.

      Cable and satellite partners could consider the same model and have some co-marketing between the online news channels and their print counterparts. This would make the cable and satellite provider’s websites more sticky (Comcast sort of does this now).

    • BreakthePaywall! is a free add-on for Internet Explorer (Firefox coming soon!) that simplifies using the various methods for circumventing website paywall restrictions.

    • I think we are still in the wild wild web and things are bound to change. There is lots of free content, but much of it is questionable and the WSJ is pretty good. People are likely to pay for good content either directly or indirectly by watching commercials or what not. I think print is dying out more so because the readers are dying out or are busy doing something else e.g. facebook, and other useless, but entertaining activities.

    • Great article! Would you like to understand your customers better or be able to build a stronger brand loyalty with them? You may be in need of a social media consultants. Check out http://bertmartinez.com a comprehensive workshop that can help you to understand and utilize social media to enhance your business relationships and in result increase your sales and profit!

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

      no one! this is so silly. social media is best used for ‘viral’ content – something people naturally want to share. charging for content is the exact opposite of sharing content. It is pointless. they need to rethink their strategy!


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