Why I Still Think WSJ.com Will be Free

I’ve said repeatedly on this site that Rupert Murdoch should and will make WSJ.com free. So how am I feeling now that he seems to have said precisely the opposite in Davos? Not quite as wrong as you might think, actually. Put it this way: wait and see.

Here’s the sum total of what Murdoch said on the subject in Davos:

"We are going to greatly expand and improve the free part of The Wall Street Journal online, but there will still be a strong offering" for subscribers, he said. "The really special things will still be a subscription service, and, sorry to tell you, probably more expensive."

Rex Hammock has a very interesting take on this:

Wait. Did he say, “The WSJ.com Won’t Go Free”?…

I predicted what Murdoch said today. They will greatly increase the free part of WSJ.com and charge more for business-critical, technical data. I’ll predict this today: the “greatly expanded and improved free part” of WSJ.com will look a lot like a free WSJ.com to most people who just read the news stories.

Megan Barnett, by contrast, seems to think that there’s going to be an editor at the WSJ somewhere deciding on a real-time basis whether to put stories into the "free" or the "paid" bucket:

There’s no word yet on what the "really special things" are that Murdoch believes will be worth more than the current $99 annual fee. The paper’s meatier, Page One stories will likely fall in that camp, as will its archives. The expanded free part will likely include more of the type that would fall in the Weekend Journal and Personal Journal sections…

Whether or not that reader will be satisfied with access to stories like Women in Power: Finding Balance In the Wardrobe but not ones like Developing Economies Face Reckoning as U.S. Stumbles remains to be seen.

I don’t buy it. The meaty Page One stories are actually one of the few parts of the paper which have had free online links for some years now. And worthy stories about emerging markets are a commodity these days: you can find as many as you like, for free, at bloomberg.com. Besides, no one will visit WSJ.com for fluffy features alone. In any case, I suspect that news stories are not what Murdoch had in mind when he talked about "really special things".

So what might he have been talking about instead? Well, Factiva, for one thing – that would certainly count as "really special", especially if a light version of it was folded into a WSJ.com subscription. Also, the Dow Jones indices, and some of the Dow Jones Newswires content which doesn’t make it into the newspaper. To start with, I’m sure there will be some news stories behind the subscription firewall as well – but the number of them will surely decrease over time.

In any event, most people seem to have glossed straight over the "greatly expand and improve" part of what Murdoch said – which certainly implies that anything which is free right now will remain free. (So no worries about Real Time Economics disappearing behind a subscription firewall – something which was considered, at one point.)

The WSJ’s Emily Steel says that "the mix of free and paid content will continue to be tweaked," which also gives me hope. Because whenever a website "tweaks" that mix, more stuff becomes free and less stuff becomes paid. Eventually, as we’ve seen with the NYT, everything becomes free.

There’s a good reason for that: it’s web design 101 that any visitor to the site should be able to click on any link and end up seeing exactly what he expected to see. People don’t like websites which violate that rule, and stop visiting them. And the effects can be lasting: traffic to economist.com is going to take a long time to get to where it could be, because most of its potential readers still think of it as a subscription site, and it hasn’t done much to disabuse them of that notion, even now that nearly everything they’ll ever want to read there is free.

So what is Murdoch thinking? Simply this: WSJ.com has a huge number of non-price-sensitive subscribers who aren’t spending their own money and who will happily pay $129 to get everything, even if, in practice, they rarely use the premium content. If people are that willing to give you tens of millions of dollars a year, it seems a bit sillly to tell them to keep their money.

Eventually, though, that’s exactly what Murdoch is going to do. He seems determined to compete head-to-head with the NYT, and that means online as well as in the print-newspaper market. At the moment, nytimes.com is a vastly superior website to wsj.com, not only because of its better web design, but also because of the incredible feeling of freedom one has surfing the archives and reading absolutely anything one likes, for free, safe in the knowledge that you can blog or email anything you like, and everybody in the world will likewise be able to read it for free.

In the age of the internet, reading a newspaper has become a social activity. Murdoch, owner of MySpace, knows full well the value of that activity. Which is why I still think WSJ.com is going to be free, even if it might take a little bit longer than I first thought for that to happen.

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