Rupert Murdoch Would Be a Fruitcake To Make the WSJ Free

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.

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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.

  • Classic Businesspunditry! Well thought out and written. I especially like the part about the change of value proposition – so true!


  • Jason

    The problem is short term vs. long term. The Journal could make more over the next 2 years if they go free, but in the long term they make less as the mood shifts back to payment models as a filter. Better to weather the storm for the long-term.

  • I enjoyed your counterview on the Wall Street Journal going public now that Rupert Murdoch is steering the ship. Time will tell if other online/brick-and-mortar combo news organizations will follow your advice or continue down the advertising trail to wealth. I cross-posted to your piece, along with some comments at which is a non-profit dedicated to bringing entrepreneurs, small businesses, venture capitalists, and intellectual property experts together for mutual benefit with a special focus on technology. Come visit us and help build the community of innovators. Best wishes for future success!


    Anthony Kuhn

  • W

    Thank you! I thought the same thing when I read about that. Don’t mess with the WSJ – my favorite paper!

  • Kathleen

    Isn’t that the truth? As wonderful as the web is in so very many ways (and I do love those ways), it does seem to be accelerating a general race to the bottom in terms of quality content on so many levels. It’s hard to get past the old axiom “you get what you pay for”. Somehow I just don’t think that one is going to fade away… While I love the free information available to us now on the web, I really dislike the seemingly fast ride so many are taking to the bottom. What’s the point of content if it’s garbage?

    A funny aside, the Google Ad words for this article were Fruitcake Lady Chocolate Fruitcake Edible Fruitcake Hawaiin Fruitcake — what a crack up!

  • Hehe, this reminds me of a comment from 37signals’ blog about Free apps for iPhone :

    “So don’t think for a second that you’re “screwing around” if you charge customers. What you’re doing is saying “This is our product, we believe it’s valuable, and we think you will too.””