There is only one media company that has such compelling content they have been able to charge for it, and now Businessweek is suggesting they make it free so they can get more viewers and make even more off ads. I think it would be hard to make a statement that I disagree with more.
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. These are not the same. Although many idealists want to believe that humans are all deep thinkers who are civic minded and want to analyze and ponder the important questions of the day, we all know that really, deep down, most people want to know what crazy celebrity scandal will happen next. The news today sucks because it's all a bunch of hype about death, destruction, sex, celebrity, and everything else that caters to our base human nature rather than our higher cognitive functions. There is already enough crap, the WSJ doesn't need to contribute to it by dropping quality business analysis in favor of financial fear-mongering to attract attention.
Secondly, the fact that ad rates are so closely tied to traffic numbers on the web is just stupid. It's a holdover from the old school days of advertising when gross numbers were all people knew. If I get a post on Reddit or Digg and get 5x my normal traffic, I don't get 5x my normal clicks on Google ads. In fact, it almost doesn't budge. Over time, web advertising will depend more on reader quality than reader quantity. I think a paid subscription model is a good way to filter out the riff-raff and keep a quality readership.
Yeah yeah, I know, web 2.0, edge competencies, wisdom of crowds, power of the masses, blah blah… too much of that stuff is a fad. Hammer. Nail. Right tool for the job. Sometimes free is good. Sometimes open standards are good. Sometimes edge works. Not always. The web is a tool, not a communist ideology. I say if the WSJ can charge for content, others should figure out how to offer something that valuable. I think it's an impressive feat in this day and age, and I wouldn't change it until people stopped paying.