The Wall Street Journal: Niche Audience vs. The Free Public World

Lately, I've been reading a lot of news reports about Rupert Murdoch's intentions to lift the pay wall from The Wall Street Journal online and I've been wondering if this is a good idea. During the course of my research about the proposed plan, I even came across two Motley Fool's reporters who were battling out the pros and cons of the idea.

Back on November 15, Rich Smith wrote:

"Brand: People believe that "you get what you pay for." By removing the price tag that tells people what WSJ.com's value is, Murdoch will devalue the brand."

While his colleague, Anand Chokkavelu wrote:

"By freeing the site, the trusted financial news source will attract more readers. How many more? If you believe Murdoch, 15 times more. He believes his 1 million online subscribers can be enlarged to as many as 15 million readers by ditching the cash register. And with more readers come more advertising dollars, especially if they turn out to be, in Murdoch's words, "the most affluent, the most influential people in the world.""

Certainly any numbskull with half a brain could see the potential in numbers of readers to be gained if the tariff were lifted. And there's also a potential cross-content strategy with the recent launch of the Fox Business News Network and MarketWatch. So if I can see what a numbskull can see, then what's my problem with Murdoch's plan?

Well, I think I'm hanging onto something that Rich Smith wrote about the brand. With a tried and true brand, both the audience and the advertisers know what they're getting when they do business with WSJ. But with a free-for-all — even though Murdoch has stated that it will be an influential audience still — I'm not sure what either the audience or the advertisers will get. Would WSJ.com just turn into some sort of portal á la Yahoo! or AOL? Is this the correct competitive landscape for such a product as the WSJ — to run up against the likes of the Goliaths of content on the Web? AOL's target market was America — in its entirety, after all. That's a wide market to cater to, and even harder to define a sweet spot for. Often being everything to everyone simply means being nothing entirely good at all.

But we could be looking at the Financial Times and The New York Times as the WSJ competition. That lot might make better sense, and ultimately set the objectives at keeping the product and brand a lot more pure.

But if traffic spikes to the extent that Murdoch predicts, then a serious content challenge will be faced. Will 15 million world readers be interested in the current content brand identity of the WSJ? Or will the content become totally diluted in order to reach this wider audience base? I'm opting for that latter on this one. And if that's how it's going to go down, then it's going to change the nature of both the content and the audience overall. Courting middle America isn't necessarily going to land you that BMW or Fidelity account. But I could be entirely wrong. Why go after less dollars spent in online advertising from luxury brands when there's more money being spent (and a better understanding of online) from lower-end brands?

I don't know, I'm torn on this one. I suppose that after the WSJ print became smaller, I've become more and more concerned about the demise of a stellar brand.

Add New Comment

12 Comments

  • Andy S.

    This is a great move for WSJ. Free content will draw a wider variety of interested parties which WSJ can use as a base to expand the format and attract more advertisers (and more revenue from their current advertisers). But I think it will only work if WSJ gets innovative, beefs up their site and offers something worthy of their reputation.

    Information is just too easy to obtain on the internet to continue to charge for basic reporting.

  • Lloyd Alter

    I don't think anyone under thirty knows that the WSJ exists unless they work there; their importance as a source has declined significantly. Fences keep their brand hidden as they exclude an entire generation which gets its news online and by word of mouth.

    It is a recipe for decline into irrelevance. (unless all you want are old rich farts)

  • Pablo Medina

    John,

    I found your article very interesting. But let me add that for non-american people, who work in the financial area and/or are interested in business, the WSJ is a helpful tool. I think that in the non-US markets Murdoch can increase significantly the readers of WSJ. 15 millions would seem significantly lower than the real number he could face with.

  • Reeegan

    I think this may be the wrong way to look at WSJ going free. I don't think opening up the content is an attempt to change the quality of the content to attract readers outside their niche. If anything, it's for people like John and I who would actively read it, so long as it were free, but don't necessarily want/need to spend money to do so presently.

    My bet is there is enough built in demand that when the gate comes down, they'll see that significant spike in no time, without any changes to the content.

  • Lynne d Johnson

    John,

    You're probably right. 15 million readers is definitely better than 1 million. And with all of those readers to monetize, the staff could become larger and produce even better and more efficient content. I can see that the video and audio offerings would be amped up. I just guess that overall, I worry about the brand's cachet.

    Lynne

  • John

    My personal estimate is that this is a necessary move. Who knows where paid content models will go in the future (perhaps they'll come back? stranger things have happened in the internet age) but for now, free does not seem to me to devalue the content - on the contrary, free is the new standard. When the NYTimes stopped charging (for archived content) I started reading it much more often.

    Very infrequently do I get a link to a WSJ article sent to me, simply because not many people I know pay to read it online, and not many people expect others to have access to it. I have a very strong suspicion that this will change as soon as the content is "unlocked."

    Years ago it was a status symbol to have a paid @aol.com email address. Now it is embarrassing. gmail, yahoo, and the rest have rendering paying for email another telltale sign of a luddite (and what's worse, a fiscally irresponsible luddite).

  • Joseph Allan

    This is a great move for WSJ. Free content will draw a wider variety of interested parties which WSJ can use as a base to expand the format and attract more advertisers (and more revenue from their current advertisers). But I think it will only work if WSJ gets innovative, beefs up their site and offers something worthy of their reputation.

    Information is just too easy to obtain on the internet to continue to charge for basic reporting.

  • Joseph Allan

    I don't think anyone under thirty knows that the WSJ exists unless they work there; their importance as a source has declined significantly. Fences keep their brand hidden as they exclude an entire generation which gets its news online and by word of mouth.

    It is a recipe for decline into irrelevance. (unless all you want are old rich farts)

  • Joseph Allan

    John,

    I found your article very interesting. But let me add that for non-american people, who work in the financial area and/or are interested in business, the WSJ is a helpful tool. I think that in the non-US markets Murdoch can increase significantly the readers of WSJ. 15 millions would seem significantly lower than the real number he could face with.

  • Joseph Allan

    I think this may be the wrong way to look at WSJ going free. I don't think opening up the content is an attempt to change the quality of the content to attract readers outside their niche. If anything, it's for people like John and I who would actively read it, so long as it were free, but don't necessarily want/need to spend money to do so presently.

    My bet is there is enough built in demand that when the gate comes down, they'll see that significant spike in no time, without any changes to the content.

  • Joseph Allan

    John,

    You're probably right. 15 million readers is definitely better than 1 million. And with all of those readers to monetize, the staff could become larger and produce even better and more efficient content. I can see that the video and audio offerings would be amped up. I just guess that overall, I worry about the brand's cachet.

    Lynne

  • Joseph Allan

    My personal estimate is that this is a necessary move. Who knows where paid content models will go in the future (perhaps they'll come back? stranger things have happened in the internet age) but for now, free does not seem to me to devalue the content - on the contrary, free is the new standard. When the NYTimes stopped charging (for archived content) I started reading it much more often.

    Very infrequently do I get a link to a WSJ article sent to me, simply because not many people I know pay to read it online, and not many people expect others to have access to it. I have a very strong suspicion that this will change as soon as the content is "unlocked."

    Years ago it was a status symbol to have a paid @aol.com email address. Now it is embarrassing. gmail, yahoo, and the rest have rendering paying for email another telltale sign of a luddite (and what's worse, a fiscally irresponsible luddite).