In a concession to increased competition from the blogosphere and other newspapers throwing in the towel on paid-subscription walls for online content, the Wall Street Journal is making its opinion pages and commentary free. Does that mean the rest of the paper will soon be free online as well? It is certainly in keeping with new owner Rupert Murdoch’s previous public statements to that effect.
But the resistance within the Journal to completely opening up is still strong. Even as part of this announcement, the editors caution, “It’s as close as we’ll get to conceding there is such a thing as a free lunch.” You can read that to mean, don’t expect the rest of the paper to go free anytime soon. And a couple days ago, Henry Blodget made a strong case for why the Journal‘s Website might end up keeping its paid wall: it makes money now ($75 million), it keeps print subscribers paying, and it generates higher online ad rates by attracting a more affluent audience.
All good points that have been trotted out by the defenders of print media in the past (i.e., the print media executives who don’t want to give up the lucrative model that they understand for a nebulous one that they don’t). Even so, it is not clear that Murdoch is convinced of these arguments. And his opinion is the only when that counts in this debate.
By opening the door a little bit with the opinion pages, the Wall Street Journal will be operating two different business models side by side. You can be sure that if the free portion outperforms the paid portion, there will be a lot of pressure to open up the news sections as well. Interestingly, when the New York Times tried the same bifurcated model it chose to make its news free and its opinion columnists were supposed to be the big draw for the online subscription service. So are people more willing to pay for opinion or for news? The answer is neither. We all know how the Times‘ experiment worked out. It is now completely free.
As more and more readers move online, they will expect their news to be free and ad-supported, as it is today on 99 percent of the Web. Even the Wall Street Journal cannot fight market forces and consumer preference forever.