Congratulations to wsj.com for posting impressive growth in both pageviews and unique visitors over the past year. Don’t pay too much attention to the numbers quoted: they’re "based on the company’s internal traffic numbers," and therefore not much use in apples-to-apples comparisons. But the rate of change is probably reasonably reliable, and it’s high.
Does this mean that Rupert Murdoch was right not to make the website free? No, it doesn’t. And in fact I’m still convinced that the site will end up going completely free, if not sooner then later.
If you look at the Mediaweek story, there’s one statistic conspicuous by its absence: what has happened to the number of subscribers to wsj.com over the past year. Betcha it hasn’t grown at all, and that substantially all of wsj.com’s new uniques are there for the free content only. (That would help explain why pageviews are growing much more slowly than uniques are.)
One can assume, then, the subscription revenue stream from wsj.com is stagnant, even as the advertising revenue stream is rising. And clearly if the site went free, then the number of pageviews per unique visitor would rise, which would mean a substantial increase in advertising inventory even if the number of unique visitors didn’t increase much at all. Keeping a large amount of content behind a subscription firewall only serves to alienate non-subscribers and mimize the degree to which wsj.com’s new uniques can be monetized.
Still, I no longer expect wsj.com to go free in the near future. As the US moves into a recession, a reliable income stream like that from subscriptions is going to be much more valuable than a volatile one like that from advertising – especially when most of the advertising on wsj.com comes from financial-services companies who are mostly struggling themselves, and always looking for areas where they can cut costs.
In the longer term, however, it just doesn’t make sense to reserve a majority of your content for a minority of your readers. The publishing industry is all about building lasting relationships with readers, and you don’t do that by putting walls in their faces. The wall will come down: it’s only a question of when, not if.