The entire online community is anxiously waiting for Rupert Murdoch to open the gates at the Wall Street Journal Online and provide free access to its content. At yesterday’s Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, he outlined his plans for the property, which included expanding national, international and cultural content to compete more effectively against newspapers such as The New York Times. As a long time subscriber who appreciates the both the quality and the breadth of the journalism, I am eager to see the Journal make the operational and economic leap to free content and execute against this vision.
I got a recent view into some of their plans via an online survey from the WSJ Online. What surprised me most about the survey was that the focus was on identifying packages of content and services for which I would be willing to pay (unfortunately, I didn’t think quickly enough to capture screenshots so this is mostly from memory). For the most part, the services mentioned were identical to many services that I can already get online for free, such as Digg, Techmeme and Google Alerts. The Journal’s differentiating assets are its journalists and its reputation/brand. Why try to use those assets to charge for content and services similar to what is available for free at established online properties? Given the decision to open up content, shouldn’t the goal be to provide increasing amounts of free content and drive as much traffic as possible to increase advertising inventory? Wouldn’t the WSJ be better off encouraging its loyal reader community to participate in conversations centered on WSJ authored or identified content, rather than charge it for accessing additional content? The New York Times already demonstrated through TimesSelect that only a small percentage of readers are willing to pay for additional content. Further, recent data suggests that opening up NYT content has led to enough page view growth to make up for lost TimesSelect subscription revenue.
I’m a firm believer in the advertising model for online newspaper content, so I’m eager to see the impact on WSJ.com traffic and advertising growth once content is indexed by search engines and increasingly linked to by blogs. The WSJ should free its content rather than spend time identifying ways to protect or generate subscription revenue through paid services that don’t leverage the Journal’s core journalistic strengths and loyal readership. If the new content and services are valuable, readers will visit the site and advertising revenue will follow. If the new products don’t strike a chord, no one would have paid for them anyway. Will WSJ.com make the leap headfirst or instead tumble towards the advertising-based model that is clearly the present and future of online content?