Free the WSJ?

1 Aug ’07

Much talk today on whether Murdoch ought to make the WSJ free, with a side conversation on whether ought to be free (My friend Mathew sums them up here). In some ways, the conversation about is an echo of the tear-down-the-paywall conversation about NYT Select from a few weeks ago. Gist of that conversation: tear down the wall, mainly just because. Or maybe don’t. it’s not clear.

There are certainly lots of people who think paywalls for online content ought to go. In some cases I do too. But I don’t put too much stock in the online popularity of that attitude – these are readers, after all, who want it free – so, customers, asking for the product for free. Big surprise there. The reason advanced is generally because free can reach a larger audience, and the supposition is that if one does, ad revenue may be sufficient enough to make the move viable.

If you’ve been paying attention to the many conversations online in the past few months about how hard it is to generate respectable revenue from online ads alone, you’re probably scratching your head right now wondering how to reconcile those two points of view. And the answer probably is, you can’t. Well, it’s at least certainly the case that you can’t without taking a serious look at whether a media property has any chance, given its content and intended demographic, of reaching an audience large enough and CPM-rich enough to deliver on the revenue it needs to pay for the content it needs to generate the audience it needs to … and so on.

I don’t know what the answer to that question is for But I expect the question of what it wants to be, now that it’s grown up, will be answered early in Murdoch’s reign. And it seems to me that that question is the first one that needs to be answered, certainly before any decisions are made about paywalls. For my part, I think comparisons between the WSJ and the NYT, and just about anything else, for that matter, are farkakteh – the WSJ has much smaller reach, and reaches a different audience than the NYT, for example. I bet it always has, and I bet it always will – the inevitable result of serving a more niched audience with better (well, more niched and in-depth, anyway) content.

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