I don't read the Wall Street Journal as often as I used to. Oh, I still pick up an occasional copy if I pass a newsstand and notice an interesting headline. But, online (which is where I get most of my news), I am reading it a lot less. The reason: Most of the WSJ's online content consists of teasers, followed by the announcement: "Subscribe to the Wall Street Journal to read the rest of the article." Nowadays, when I see that a link points to a Wall Street Journal article, I don't even waste time going there.
Rupert Murdoch, the publishing and broadcast magnate who owns the WSJ and other media outlets, has the idea that, if the WSJ locks its content into a subscription-only website, people will pay to read it. In contrast, take Sergey Brin, who, in a mere 12 years, has built one of the world's richest companies (Google) on the idea of "making all the world’s information universally accessible and useful" and funding this idea with ad revenue.
It is not that Murdoch is a stranger to advertising supported media: He owns the Fox television network and the highly profitable Fox News Network. Imagine if people had to pay for a subscription to watch Fox News, in addition to the price they pay for cable or satellite television. How many viewers would Fox News have? Murdoch needs to forget that people read newspaper articles on websites. People tend to view the internet more like television than newspapers. There is a reason for the similarity between "channel surfing" and "web surfing."
Murdoch's subscription approach is part of a foolish, short-sighted, but growing trend among newspaper publishers who simply don't get it. The result, I predict, is that readers will ultimately get less and less of their news from newspaper websites. Brand recognition of these news outlets will fall. And the hard times being experienced by print media in the digital age will get worse.
The trend began years ago as newspaper managers, (stupidly) believing it was a bad idea for readers to be able to find their articles using search engines, began locking their content away and taking elaborate measures to de-list their published content from search engines.
Now let's think about this for a minute: Suppose I want to read the latest news from the Winter Olympics. I search Google and see a link to an article from the Sacramento Bee (just to pull a name out of the air). I click on the link and read the article. I see another article that interests me and continue to read articles from the Sacramento Bee—all the time viewing advertising. I decide the Sacramento Bee is a pretty good news source, bookmark it, and come back regularly, each time viewing more ads in the process.
But let's suppose the Sacramento Bee locks up its content. No longer can I find articles in it using Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc. (I hate Bing, but that's another story.) Only those who already know of the existence of the Sacramento Bee (mainly local residents) and who have some reason to think they might find what they are looking for will go there. The result: diminished readership and a lot of effort put into a website that very few people will actually visit. A second result: instead of reaching a larger audience with its journalism and advertising, the website, only viewed by local residents, ends up competing with the print version for the same readership. So instead of expanding their base, they end up competing with themselves for the diminishing base they already have.
Major newspapers that have a national reputation, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post might (and I only say might) be able to get away with a subscription model. But that is only because of the existence of a generation that has some regard for the historic reputation of these newspapers' print versions.
Fast forward one generation: If the Wall Street Journal has been locked up behind a subscription model, and you now have a generation that has grown up thinking of it as a rarefied, niche publication for those who are willing and able to pay for it (if they even know of it at all)—a generation that has grown accustomed to getting their information from more accessible, more customizable news sources—is the WSJ's revenue going to be greater or smaller?
30% of the population over age 40 read a daily newspaper, only 15% of those under age 40 do so. Increasingly, people want to absorb news of what is happening around them as they go, as effortlessly as they breathe air or drink water.
So when I search for news online and find that the newspapers whose names I might be familiar with have locked their content up behind a subscription, and other newspapers have de-listed their content so it doesn't even show up in the search engines, what am I going to do?
I am going to continue to do what I have for the past 15 years. I am going to use a portal as my internet start page, where I can view news headlines for categories I choose; and, in most cases, I can read the same AP or Reuters stories I would get by going to a subscription website. I can read all sorts of feature stories that may not be the same as one can find in the New York Times, they may be even better! I can click on through to all sorts of sources for business, sports, technology, and other stories from a variety of sources. PLUS, I can get the weather forecast for as many cities as I choose, view stock reports, sports scores, television schedules, local movies showtimes, and lots of other information in categories that I choose and in a format that I can customize.
So, if newspapers want to disappear from the scene entirely, they can continue to lock up their content and charge for subscriptions. If they actually want to reach more people (and make more money) they should start customizable portals, run ads, and let the search engines drive as many people their way as possible.
It's ironic, but the Wall Street Journal's online edition is right now running a story entitled What Newspapers Can Learn From Craigslist:
Craig Newmark did one simple thing: He thought about what his users truly wanted. (Perhaps the publishers of the Wall Street Journal should read their own articles.) Of course, after seven lines of the story, you'll read: "To continue reading, subscribe now." No, thanks.
In short, I'm willing to bet Sergey Brin and Craig Newmark know more than Rupert Murdoch about how we'll be getting our information in the years to come.