Should Murdoch make the Journal free?

If you’re a traditional journalist with any interest in online media whatsoever, one of the central questions hovering over the acquisition of the Wall Street Journal is whether the Journal’s new proprietor, Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch, will remove the pay wall and give the Journal away for free. He has said several times that he is considering such a move, but he has also mused about whether it would be worth it or not.

snipshot_e4udb69k0ux.jpgI know that many newspapers have looked to the Journal as a model for what a paper can do online, because it is one of the few that has charged for its content from the very beginning and built what appears to be a successful business doing so. But does it make sense now? This Wall Street Journal story notes that Murdoch commissioned a study that looked at what going free would mean for the paper, and from that he concluded that while readership would grow by a factor of 10, advertising would likely only grow by a factor of five, and the loss of subscription revenue would effectively make the whole thing a wash. In other words, maybe’s it’s not worth it. However, Murdoch has asked questions like this:

“What if, at the Journal, we spent $100 million a year hiring all the best business journalists in the world? Say 200 of them. And spent some money on establishing the brand but went global — a great, great newspaper with big, iconic names, outstanding writers, reporters, experts. And then you make it free, online only. No printing plants, no paper, no trucks.”

Fred Wilson has made it clear what his view is: Murdoch should make the WSJ free online, before he does anything else. Fred points out that the New York Times gets 10 times the traffic that the Wall Street Journal does, and is far more often the centre of an online discussion about business or financial matters. That kind of thing is going to drive Murdoch crazy.

Larry Kramer, formerly with Marketwatch, has a different idea about how Murdoch can keep charging for the Journal and use Marketwatch as a free alternative, an adjunct to his much-anticipated Fox Business Channel, but I’m not sure that would work. I’m going with Fred on this one. The Journal could be so much more relevant online if it were free, and Murdoch is just the guy to do it.

Further reading:

Darian Benkoil at Corante, a former AP correspondent and ABCNews editor, does the math and says that it doesn’t make sense for the Journal to go free (although I think one could question some of his assumptions), and Joe Wiesenthal has some thoughts over at Techdirt. Tony Hung at Deep Jive Interests isn’t so sure going free would be such a good thing for the Journal.