As the Wall Street Journal is breathlessly reporting, Rupert “Just Try and Stop Me” Murdoch has apparently relented on his much-discussed plans to open up the Journal’s content and get rid of the paywall, and will be keeping some subscription products (and boosting the price for them, oddly enough) while letting more stuff move outside the wall. In other words, he will be trying to have his cake and eat it too.
I know that there are a lot of smart people out there who believe that you can do both — one of them being Rex Hammock, who has been predicting for some time that Rupert would see the light and go for a mixed strategy. I would not claim to have the expertise in publishing that Rex has, but I do know one thing: the kind of content that newspapers produce, in virtually all cases including the esteemed WSJ, is either a commodity (in which case charging for it is nonsensical) or something with added value. In both cases I think it benefits the paper to release it into the wild.
Obviously if it’s a commodity then it should be free. But I would argue that it’s almost more important for the added-value content to be free as well. And here I am in violent agreement with Fred Wilson of A VC, who says that he believes Rupert has made a big mistake by keeping content locked up. As he puts it in his post on the topic:
“Here’s the deal. Digital media is not about scarcity and never will be. That’s the old media game. Online it’s about ubiquity, about being part of the conversation, about links, authority, page rank, and if you are a news organization like the WSJ – its about anchoring the discussion.”
This is the same debate that the New York Times went through, and it eventually decided to get rid of the wall. Was it not making money? No, it was making plenty of money — but that pie wasn’t growing. And it certainly wasn’t growing as quickly as the NYT’s traffic has been since it removed the wall. I think the Journal would be wise to trade the bird it has in its hand for two or three (or twelve) in the bush.