Pay! Pay! Pay?
The ongoing will he/wont he guessing game looks finally to be over with Rupert Murdoch confirming that the pay-wall at Wall Street Journal.com is here to stay.
Tearaway financial markets may have strengthened his resolve but the multiple benefits of making readers pay – or even persuading the hundreds of thousands who have already signed up to carry on paying – have prevailed, from defending premium ad rates to sustaining an alternative stream, once, as seems imminent, advertisers start tightening their belts.
It was only just a few months ago that John Squires, head of interactive at Time Inc, the world’s biggest magazine publisher, was arguing that free content and recessions don’t mix at an AmCham luncheon in Hong Kong.
The question of paid-for versus free is far from resolved, however. Murdoch’s vision for online access is very different to the hybrid models practiced by a number of papers today, including the Journal itself and erstwhile rival the FT, in which readers can snack on free stories but have to put their hands in their pockets if they want anything sustaining.
The Journal’s new proprietor has said the really good stuff will stay behind the pay wall, providing a premium readership that can command premium ad rates. At the same time, he has also pledged there will be plenty to read without having to pay a cent. This should also help the ad sales team with a sizable audience to sell against.
A key question remains: how good does the really good stuff have to be? Or, practically, will the investment required to sustain such a premium service bring enough money back to make it worthwhile?
In a world with so much freely available content, from business analysis to celebrity gossip, that’s as good as much of the stuff papers want to charge for, the answer is far from clear.
Murdoch may have confounded the Web’s myriad pundits by not making the Journal free, but his vision for the future of online publishing will only become apparent once he starts developing content and services on both sides of the Journal’s pay-wall. Until then, the guessing game is sure to continue.
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