Will Murdoch Kill The One Smart Part Of The WSJ's Paywall?

from the sounds-like-it dept

With Rupert Murdoch's recent talk about removing his sites from Google, some said that if you understood his comments in context, he was really talking more about copying the WSJ's "leaky" paywall strategy -- which lets users see full articles if they visit via Google. Of course, in that very interview, he appeared to not know how that leaky paywall works, claiming that it took people to a landing page with a couple of paragraphs rather than the full story. That's not true. It does that if you're linked from most other sites. But people who come via Google (or, I believe, Digg) get the full story automatically. The idea, from SEO experts, was to actually help Google drive more traffic.

Of course, that was before Murdoch suddenly decided that all this free promotion was "parasiting" his works (despite the fact that many of his own properties do the same thing. However, it looks like News Corp. may actually be considering ending the "leaky" part of its paywall, with the company's COO, Chase Carey, saying that the idea makes no sense:
"I don't think it makes sense... We don't want people going though a backdoor, or other channels..."
And now we learn how little the folks at News Corp. seem to understand the internet and the fundamental way that people want to interact with news these days. It's not just about sitting and receiving the end product. It's about being a part of the process -- and that includes sharing and spreading the news -- for free -- to others. Mark Cuban thinks (incorrectly, in my opinion) that Murdoch understands the value of people passing around links, which is why he says he wants to opt-out of Google (because search traffic isn't as valuable as traffic from Twitter or Facebook). But locking up all that content actually harms that viral-link value. People aren't going to share or spread a link if they know others can't use it. For years, for example, we've used those "backdoors" (i.e., Google News) which Carey bemoans to read stories in the WSJ that we post here. If they stop allowing that, then I won't read the WSJ any more, and the community of readers and commenters here will never hear from the WSJ again. It's difficult to see how that's a better option.

Amusingly, the first time that we ever wrote about this growing concept that people today want to "spread the news" and "share the news" more than they just want to receive the news was about five years ago -- before the WSJ had put up its leaky paywall. The point of that post was to note just how far the WSJ had fallen out of the conversation on news media -- since no one could send around a link to discuss things. Putting those "backdoors" into the paywall, at the very least, brought the WSJ somewhat back into the conversation. Blocking it now would make the Journal irrelevant again. It's difficult to see how that's a smart strategy at all.


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    Overcast (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 1:58pm

    Technology is so scary sometimes... ;)

    But really, it's like a milk company in 1920 *insisting* that the only way they will deliver milk is using a horse and buggy.

    Do you think consumers will care or call another company that uses a truck to deliver it?

    Do I care if Murdoch gets every single bit of his corporation's 'news' off the web? No - I do not.

     

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      Jason Buberel (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 4:02pm

      Re: You may not...

      Overcast-

      You may not care, but there are certain aspects to the content available on the WSJ.com that are either mildly scarce or at least hard to find from other sources. That is why WSJ.com is one of the rare news sites that has a reasonably sized subscriber base.

      For people who live/breath within the financial and investment communities, the WSJ.com does have unique value. It is the casual WSJ.com visitors (you, me) who are not part of the close-knit community that Murdoch is apparently willing to lose.

      I for one can't wait until he makes his move.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 5:07pm

        Re: Re: You may not...

        there are certain aspects to the content available on the WSJ.com that are either mildly scarce or at least hard to find from other sources.

        At the moment.

         

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 3:10pm

    Do you really think the WSJ will miss you Mike? Your ideas here are pretty much anti-establishment, and it would seem that they are pretty much establishment oriented. If anything, you would be losing one more source of bitch posts.

     

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    BobinBaltimore (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 3:13pm

    You won't read the WSJ anymore?

    Mike, I get your points above and agree that this needs more consideration. I - as always - take issue with your subjective labeling of things you like as "smart" as it's kinda smarmy.

    That said, you make the comment above "If they stop allowing that [free access to expensive content], then I won't read the WSJ any more..." And to that I say, "so?" Assuming you are not a subscriber today, you are of little to no revenue value to WSJ today. You not coming to the site means nothing to the WSJ. The inconvenient truth is that online ad revenue is peanuts and Murdoch is right: advertisers don't want to pay for fleeting eyes. Your further comment that "and the community of readers and commenters here will never hear from the WSJ again." is true to some degree...some communities (namely those who don't subscribe and represent little to no revenue value to WSJ) will self-exclude, true. But those communities are largely of no value to the business of the Wall Street Journal today. For some businesses that might be suicide. For the WSJ, I doubt it. It thrives on unique and uniquely targeted content (not information, which is ubiquitous, but content) for predominantly business-oriented readers. In this regard, it is more akin to a B2B publication than most newspapers out there, even the biggies.

    I agree that limiting the near revenueless eyes hitting the pages will likely result in a loss of prestige, if not carefully managed, but this is not the same as loss of revenue. As a for-profit business, is it better to have 100,000 revenue generating pairs of eyes, or 1,000,000 freeloaders? It differs business to business, but the tendency is probably toward the former, not the latter. THIS is the challenge of print to digital migration.

    I know that you and TechDirt spend a lot of time talking about everyone "embracing" everything and "connecting" all too often in very nebulous, warm and fuzzy paragraphs. I'll shock you by saying that I AGREE that those strategies are useful, even very useful in consumer markets especially where fandom is a big factor in the purchase decision. But connecting in a more B2B context is often (not always) a different beast. People don't subscribe to Bloomberg and Westlaw so they can giggle in the forums and speculate the universe. "Connecting" in the B2B context is being relevant, useful and constructive toward the business at hand. WSJ is, in my opinion, more along those lines, than fan-based consumerism.

     

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      Mike Masnick (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 3:30pm

      Re: You won't read the WSJ anymore?

      I - as always - take issue with your subjective labeling of things you like as "smart" as it's kinda smarmy.

      Calling something smart is smarmy? And calling something smarmy is what, then? :)

      It's an opinion, Bob. Nothing smarmy about having an opinion.

      That said, you make the comment above "If they stop allowing that [free access to expensive content], then I won't read the WSJ any more..." And to that I say, "so?" Assuming you are not a subscriber today, you are of little to no revenue value to WSJ today.

      Are you a subscriber here? No. I have receive no revenue at all from you then. Should I block you from reading Techdirt? That seems pretty dumb to me. There are lots of ways to monetize your presence, even if I'm not getting you to hand me cash directly.

      But those communities are largely of no value to the business of the Wall Street Journal today.

      But they sure will be tomorrow. If you exclude free visitors from the web, yes, you'll hang on to some old folks, but no one from the next generation is going to care or see any value at all in subscribing, especially as every smart competitor rushes in to take up the void by offering free valuable business/investing insight.

      It's a "milk a dying cow" business. I guess maybe it'll pay the bills for the rest of Rupert's life. But the next generation is doomed.

      As a for-profit business, is it better to have 100,000 revenue generating pairs of eyes, or 1,000,000 freeloaders?

      You assume that those "freeloaders" can't be monetized. You're in the news business, aren't you? Do you really need a map on how to monetize "freeloaders"?

      People don't subscribe to Bloomberg and Westlaw so they can giggle in the forums and speculate the universe.

      Nor did anyone suggest otherwise. Not sure why you need the strawman.

      "Connecting" in the B2B context is being relevant, useful and constructive toward the business at hand. WSJ is, in my opinion, more along those lines, than fan-based consumerism.

      Indeed. But part of connecting in the B2B setting is that you have to show better ROI than the other guys. Right now perhaps the WSJ can do that for a lot of people. But it gets harder and harder in the future. Taking yourself out of the wider conversation greatly decreases the value, and if you think users won't notice, you haven't been paying attention lately.

       

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        BobinBaltimore (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 3:48pm

        Re: Re: You won't read the WSJ anymore?

        Okay, touche on the smarminess...I probably overstated. But you often use an implicit "smart-dumb" dichotomy which admittedly bugs me.

        On "Are you a subscriber here? No. I have receive no revenue at all from you then. Should I block you from reading Techdirt? That seems pretty dumb to me. There are lots of ways to monetize your presence, even if I'm not getting you to hand me cash directly." Again, the "smart-dumb" thing. But anyway...your business model (an entirely business, actually) is DIFFERENT than WSJ. TechDirt is almost exclusively derivative content and comments on it...and I mean that appreciation and respect. The point of TechDirt is the commentary, so the driver for you to remain open and free is obvious. The WSJ produces original content targeted at a predominantly business audience. And the scale, cost structure and audience are wildly different. Totally different, so I think your strawman doesn't quite fit.

        As for how much communities matter to revenue for the B2B WSJ, you say "But they sure will be tomorrow." Okay...that's your guess, with your a priories. Do communities take only one form and must they be free? Certainly not. Why can't Murdoch explore a different approach to the same challenge? Free is, perhaps, one means to the end of revenue. There are certainly other means and many hybrids yet to be explored.

        "You assume that those "freeloaders" can't be monetized. You're in the news business, aren't you? Do you really need a map on how to monetize "freeloaders"?" Yes, you know my IP reveals that I am in the middle of some of this. I am not assuming that freeloaders can't be monetized. But I can give you 30 examples live today that show that it is extremely difficult to monetize freeloaders to the degree necessary to support a business as a going concern, even partially. I agree that this will change (Hulu, in many ways, gives us all hope). But we have to get from here to there, and business that have dozens, hundreds or tens of thousands of employees need revenue along the way. A leap of faith is generally not regarded as a solid business strategy.

        And I do agree that the loss of prestige and virality (is that a word?) is a problem for any business using a paywall. But it is much more of a problem for pubs that are purely consumer focused. Either way, it is something that needs to be carefully measured and managed. And measuring and managing that is a helluva difficult task.

         

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          Derek Reed (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 6:26pm

          Re: Re: Re: You won't read the WSJ anymore?

          One hopefully super quick outsider comment:

          But I can give you 30 examples live today that show that it is extremely difficult to monetize freeloaders to the degree necessary to support a business as a going concern, even partially. I agree that this will change (Hulu, in many ways, gives us all hope). But we have to get from here to there, and business that have dozens, hundreds or tens of thousands of employees need revenue along the way. A leap of faith is generally not regarded as a solid business strategy.

          I hear this line of logic a lot, and correct if I'm interpreting incorrectly, but it sounds like you're saying that putting up a paywall isn't taking a risk? That's the part of your argument I fail to understand. Isn't shutting yourself off from the world now risking a lot of your possible future monetization? If we assume that at some point (or now, as you mentioned with Hulu) more people do make money off of those freeloaders and the internet at large, then haven't you already been left behind (or at the very least, lost significant market share) by removing yourself from the internet conversation? Is that not also a risk?

           

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            Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 6:36pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: You won't read the WSJ anymore?

            Hulu is a great example of where a legal restriction has turned to their major advantage. Effectively because they cannot show the material outside of the US, they have avoided being the dumping ground for humanity (that goes to youtube). They manage to keep a relatively well focused marketplace, and they are moving to assure that there is enough revenue to keep the business afloat.

            Being part of the conversation is fine, but if you are having to pay out of pocket to stay in that conversation, there is a point where it's time to fold the cards and move on. Collecting dimes and payout out dollars makes you really popular in the world, but it isn't a sustainable business model. In the end, sustainable business models are what makes the world go around.

             

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              Derek Reed (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 6:48pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: You won't read the WSJ anymore?

              But cutting yourself off from the world (on the internet, in the information age, as an information provider/contributor) isn't a sustainable business model. Someone else can and will and has come along to take your place without cutting themselves off. This sort of hutzpah that says "I can wall myself off and they'll have to pay me, they have no choice" is a dangerous line of thinking.

               

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                Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 7:08pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: You won't read the WSJ anymore?

                This sort of hutzpah that says "I can wall myself off and they'll have to pay me, they have no choice" is a dangerous line of thinking.

                No, I think they are saying "I can wall myself off and they will pay me, because my content is unique and valuable". This is actually the true meaning of selling scarcity. WSJ articles are a scarcity, and they have value to the people who would read them.

                I can get the same AP fed headlines from 101 sources including google. That doesn't for a minute impart much value to them.

                 

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            BobinBaltimore (profile), Nov 13th, 2009 @ 5:25am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: You won't read the WSJ anymore?

            Derek, I do see your point. The complication here is that many news and content sites aren't self-sustaining from monetization of free traffic today. The true risk is in doing not. I think we can agree on that. Certainly putting up a paywall is a risk, no doubt. But it is a risk that tends toward the known for businesses like WSJ, where subscription models of various sorts have sustained the business for decades. And those models have evolved, BTW.

            I am not advocating paywalls. I am saying that paywalls CAN and may very well need to be PART of a strategy of either continued revenue success or a return to revenue success for businesses that had somewhat indiscriminately been giving their content (not information, which is ubiquitous) away free without seeing commensurate monetization with prior approaches. There has to be a balance between "potential future monetization" and being able to sustain the business with real cash flow between now and then. Paywalls may not be an end point, but they are a legitimate (meaning: not dumb) method to consider when trying to dig a content business out from the revenue abyss.

             

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    John Fenderson (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 4:01pm

    It's not just about paywalls, it's about walls

    I ignore all sites that put up walls, pay or not. For example, The New York Times? Invisible to me.

    This not only means that I never refer to such sites online or pass their links around, but also I don't pay much attention to any online commentary that relies solely on them.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 4:57pm

    Ok wait

    So somehow not showing the whole story is suddenly going to stop working for NewsCorp? That's their whole thing, isn't it?

     

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