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Paid or Free for WSJ.com?
September 19, 2007; Page B1
News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch hasn't completed his purchase of Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, but already Mr. Murdoch and Dow Jones executives are debating a key strategic question: Should the Journal fall in line with the rest of the industry and make its 11-year-old paid-subscription Web site free?
Mr. Murdoch has been dropping hints that he is contemplating doing just that when he takes over, raising the idea in interviews before he clinched the deal and more openly in recent meetings with top Journal editors and Dow Jones Chief Executive Richard F. Zannino.
Yesterday, the News Corp. chairman went even further, telling an investment conference that the issue was "right on the front burner" and, although no decision has been made, a free site "looks like the way we are going."
Mr. Zannino and other Dow Jones executives, however, have made the case that there is value in keeping the Journal's Web site -- with its 983,000 subscribers -- at least partially a paid site. While none of the executives would comment, a spokeswoman said, "We are continuing to evaluate our online model and look for opportunities to grow our business."
The Journal became the only major U.S. paper charging for online access to most of its content after the New York Times yesterday abandoned its two-year-old online paid-subscription service, which offered paying subscribers online access to the newspaper's columnists and archives. The Times believes it will more than offset the subscription revenue it is losing by generating more advertising revenue, a result of broadening its Web site's audience.
But the debate at Dow Jones and the Times' decision comes as the once-torrid growth in online-newspaper ad revenue is slowing. Newspapers face increasing online competition from Web portals and TV networks. Last month some newspaper groups, including McClatchy Co. and Hearst Corp. newspapers, saw traffic to their Web sites fall while Yahoo News and Time Warner Inc.'s CNN Web sites posted strong growth, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
The rate of growth of online-newspaper ads dropped to 19.3% during the second quarter of 2007, down from a growth rate of 33.2% during the second quarter of 2006, according to the Newspaper Association of America.
The slowing growth online coincides with accelerating declines in newspapers' print-ad revenue, casting doubt on whether newspapers will ever be able to offset their losses in print with gains on the Internet. Online ads still make up a small portion of total newspaper revenues, just 7% of the $11.3 billion total print- and online-newspaper ad revenues during the second quarter.
Still, given the downward spiral of print revenues, most newspaper executives feel they have no choice but to grab as big a slice of the online-ad pie as they can.
The Times is the latest in a string of papers to abandon attempts to generate subscription revenue online. Slate, the online magazine now owned by Washington Post Co., started out as a free site owned by Microsoft Corp. in 1996, only to charge a $19.95 subscription fee two years later and then drop the fee a year after that, citing the boom in online advertising. Tribune Co.'s Los Angeles Times, after a two-year experiment, stopped charging for online access to its entertainment listings in 2005.
Aside from the Journal, the most prominent newspaper to continue charging for access to part of its Web site is the Financial Times, which charges for certain portions of the site. "There are no plans to make ft.com completely free," said Charles Goldsmith, spokesman for Pearson PLC, publisher of the Financial Times. "We continue to evaluate the mix of paid versus free content on the site," he added. Subscriptions to ft.com rose to 97,000 as of June 2007, up 12% from a year earlier.
Both the Journal and the Financial Times are special cases in the newspaper world -- more specialized than general-interest papers but more general than trade publications. That puts them in an unusual place in the discussion of paid content: Wall Street and corporate executives have shown a willingness to pay for online access to business news.
Mr. Murdoch has suggested that making WSJ.com free would bring in enough advertising revenue to offset the subscription revenues that are lost. WSJ.com generated at least $50 million in subscription revenues last year, according to people familiar with the matter.
"Would you lose $50 million in revenue? I don't think so," Mr. Murdoch said yesterday at a Goldman Sachs conference in New York City. "...But you'd lose some tens of millions to start with. Then, if the site is good, I think you'd get much more than that back just in textual search. And I think you'd get not one million paying customers, but, around the world, you'd get 10 to 15 million regular daily hits on it, and that would be the most affluent, the most influential people in the world...And I think that could grow."
But making that up in advertising revenue would require the Journal to increase traffic to its site to well north of 20 million monthly unique visitors, up from an 8.3 million monthly average in the second quarter of this year, Dow Jones estimates. Nielsen Net/Ratings, one of several firms that measure Web traffic, estimates the Journal's August traffic at 5.1 million unique visitors.
Getting up to 20 million could be tough: the New York Times' Web site, nytimes.com, is the most popular newspaper site on the Web, with 13.1 million unique visitors, Nielsen Net/Ratings estimates. Yahoo Finance, the biggest financial Web site, drew 16.8 million visitors.
News Corp. may see a strategic benefit in having a free WSJ.com even if the site doesn't immediately make up the lost subscription revenue. As part of a larger corporation, expanding reach and gaining share of overall online volume "will outweigh the opportunity, and absolute dollars, associated with the paid subscription model," Douglas Anmuth, a Lehman Brothers analyst, said in a note.
But Mr. Zannino and other executives have said that given the nature of the Journal's content, opening up the Web site to nonsubscribers might not attract enough new readers to make up for lost subscription revenue. Furthermore, according to an internal Dow Jones review of WSJ.com, nonsubscribers only stay on the site for an article or two, unlike subscribers, who stay on the site much longer.
The lofty ad rates the Journal can charge online would be eroded by a less loyal, nonsubcriber base. Lehman Brothers estimates that the average page view on WSJ.com commands four times the ad revenue of a page view the New York Times site.
Looking to cash in on growth in online advertising, the Journal already offers some content free, including stories from its business-of-life sections. The paper is doing a test with Google News in which online readers coming to its site from Google News can read a single article for free but are blocked from entering other parts of the site. The goal, according to a Wall Street Journal spokeswoman, is to capitalize on both the traffic that comes from search engines as well as to encourage people to subscribe to the Journal.
-- Emily Steel contributed to this article.
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