Two of my favorite bloggers recently offered up compelling, and opposing, views on what the Wall St. Journal should do with its website.
First up, Fred over at A VC, wrote:
Rupert Murdoch should make the WSJ as free to use online as Google is. And he should do that the first day he owns the paper. Why isn't the WSJ the force in the online world that is it in the offline world? Easy, because you have to pay for its content and anyone who has spent time doing business online realizes that less than 10% of anyone's audience (even if your audience are rich people) will pay for online content.
Fred seems to think that they increase the pages views enough to generate enough in advertising to make the $75 million in subscriber revenues. I think he is probably correct with this, the concern would be how many ads they'd have to place and how it might distract from the readability of the pages. I'm quite sick of animated dancing characters trying to sell me a mortgage and similar attention-spam. I think if they went to a ad-supported revenue model, they'd have to keep their audience in mind set some pretty strict guidelines as to the types and quality of ads they'd accept (just like in the paper version). Where I think Fred nails this is it that is indeed rare to see a WSJ reference on a blog, so they are sacrificing community participation.
Next up, Rob over at BusinessPundit, wrote:
First of all, yes, some free content is good. You need to prove that you have some value so that people are willing to pay for the rest of what you offer, but when you make everything free, you get the downward spiral of quality that tends to be so prevalent on the web. When you shift from paying for content to attracting eyeballs and selling ads, the value proposition changes from we have quality content to we have the attention of many people. Thus, your product decisions focus less on quality content and more on content that will attract the attention of many people.
Rob makes the assumption that if the content is ad-supported, that the quality will suffer - that they'll somehow stop producing the quality content that the WSJ is known for. It is VERY rare that I disagree with Rob, he's a very smart guy, but I think there is a touch of faulty logic in his argument. The weather channel, for instance, is ad-supported content, but that doesn't change their weather forecast: "People prefer to look at Sunny and 70, so we'll just show that all the time." or "Our traffic spikes with there is a threat of sever weather, so we'll show a chance of Tornado's every day". If the Weather Channel stopped offering accurate forecasts, they wouldn't have any viewers.
Again, I think both Rob and Fred make very compelling cases for their side of the argument... however, why not do some combination of both?
1.) Continue with subscription model, but make all the content free after 5/7/14 days. The value of their content declines over time, who wants financial news from a week ago? Subscribers could link to articles, knowing that they'll be publicly available after a few days, so the link will work for everyone eventually. This is what Wired, Fast Company, Business 2.0 and others do - you can't see the content for free until some number of days/weeks after the initial publication. Subscribers will see it right away, others will have to wait. You can maintain the exclusivity of the content with this model, because only some people will see it right away.
2.) Pay for participation. Give all the content away, but charge to participate in discussions and build a WSJ social network, where you have access to analysts, writers, editors, etc. The power behind this would be in the facilitation of developing relationships between like minded individuals. Think of this as an exclusive version of LinkedIn.
3.) Give some of the content away, charge for the premium stuff. Not all of their content relates directly to the market, they have great articles during the week about careers and travel, and so forth - why not just give that stuff away for free? Tie this to number 1 above, and they could make everything free after some number of days.
4.) Build a set of premium tools and charge for those. My guess is that people who read WSJ care about the financial markets, so why not give the articles away for free but charge for additional stuff - summaries, company and/or industry trackers, email alerts, etc. Let subscribers build a profile on the site that enables the WSJ to help them manage the complexity of the market and their investments. For instance, if someone cares about the consumer packaged goods industry - build me a custom view that includes articles about that. They could have custom Specialty Editors that could provide in-depth industry pages that would highlight all the important stories and events for that given industry. Not as many people would sign up for this, but I'm sure they could charge a premium price for it - if the tools were good enough.
5.) Make a few articles free every day, so that bloggers can link to and discuss them. The more people they expose to the quality, the more people should subscribe.
6.) Allow other sites to license their content. Imagine if some/all of the WSJ content was available on Yahoo, like Reuters and and AP stuff - WSJ would still get some money for the content and they would get increased exposure. If they also added advertising revenue, they could really increase profits.
Okay, these aren't the greatest ideas, however, I don't think this is an either / or situation. I think they can do both. I don't read the WSJ (print edition) often - mostly when I'm traveling, but I always enjoy it when I do. The quality of the content is great.
What do you think? Free? Subscription-based? Some combination of the two? Something else? What should the WSJ do?