Mediaweek magazine puts together a “Digital Hot List” each year of the websites or companies they see as having the potential to wow the web world. Their list never seems to be much of a surprise, especially when you consider Google, Facebook and Twitter are sort of default entries, but there’s always one or two on it that raise an eyebrow.

This year it’s the Wall Street Journal‘s website, WSJ.com, in at No. 8. Yep! The website property of a traditional media outlet is on Mediaweek‘s Digital Hot List. And no, it’s not a joke.

To further perplex the digerati, The Journal is one of the few papers that did not take down its pay-to-play subscription model a few years back. That’s right. You have to pay to see much (not all, but still) of the WSJ.com content, a policy considered blasphemous by many in the social media set.

The online audience at WSJ.com has spiked by as much as 44 percent in recent months according to ComScore, it is now the largest newspaper in the U.S. and both the print and online versions are profitable. Mediaweek calls their model the, “envy of the industry.”

“They made a decision a long time ago that most didn’t,” Mike Shields, Mediaweek’s senior editor for digital media told me yesterday. “The Journal is not free. They never wavered or changed that. That is as key to the success as the content they deliver. That precedent is enviable and hard for someone to copy, particularly if you’ve been giving away your content for 10 years.”

Called crazy in 2005, The Journal is on a hot list in 2009. And, unfortunately, their success is leading many newspapers to consider charging for their content. I say unfortunately because most of them will do so at their own peril. For The Wall Street Journal has two things going for it the others don’t.

First, The Journal is a niche publication focused on the financial world. The people who read the journal can afford to subscribe. Many of them probably have their businesses pay for the subscription in the first place. For many, The Journal is a requisite of their job. You read it or you fail.

More importantly, however, The Journal has the one thing most newspaper’s do not: an abundance of quality, original and exclusive content.

Pick up your local paper. Now go through the first two sections and count how many stories are actually local. My guess is fewer than half. For some newspapers, 25 percent is more like it.

“(The WSJ) reporting is really good and they provide content that isn’t going to be anywhere else,” Shields said. “They aren’t repurposing A.P. (Associated Press) stories.”

Shields noted there’s nothing wrong with A.P. stories, but most “local” papers would be “local” flyers without the wire services.

My hope is that newspapers don’t fall into the trap of thinking they can do what The Wall Street Journal has done. Sure, they can do it, but not without increasing editorial staff and changing their focus to hyper local. They can’t do it unless they’re willing to be more than just copy-paste engines with a few good writers covering stories relevant to their readers.

And I’m fairly certain few publishers will have the vision to see the solution does not lie in how you charge for your content, but in what kind of content you produce.

For more on the Mediaweek Digital Hot List, visit the story at Mediaweek.com. For The Wall Street Journal, visit WSJ.com.



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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://humanvoice.wordpress.com tomob

    Jason:

    How can the WSJ be a niche publication and the biggest newspaper in the USA? Here are the three reasons I think they are so successful.

    1. I would argue that the WSJ is a paper that stands for something. At their very best they stand for the American dream which is heroic, entrepreneurial success.

    2. They do awesome original reporting – how many times have you seen WSJ stories re-cycled on NPR, your local paper or the magazine style TV shows?

    3. They are on this side of the people instead of the government – and that is pretty rare these days.

    My $0.02

    TO'B

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Always a well-spend $.02, Tom. Thanks for that. The fact they are
      niche (financial, or at least with a financial slant) further enhances
      the wow-factor of their success. Your second point is the major one,
      in my mind. Original reporting that you can only find there … that's
      a great content strategy if you can pull it off. Thanks again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/edward.boches Edward Boches

    You've nailed it. Company paid, high quality content. Most other newspapers would be gone if they charged. Why? Blogs, Twitter, RSS feeds and all the other sources we have for content. If newspapers had made a faster and more aggressive move to local, crowdsourced content from locals, embraced community participation, and created neighborhood reporters, they'd be in a much better place. But they blew it. They now repeat national news through feeds and wire services because it's cheaper than having original content. A new model will emerge. Not sure what it will be but it won't be what was.

  • lgrimm

    Great post Jason. I am a happy subscriber to the WSJ. It's one of the first places I go every day. I think you hit it on the head as did TO'B below. The WSJ is one of the few mass mediums that puts content where it belongs (as a high priority and with a unique perspective, after all isn't that the point of news?) and most importantly it writes for the people. I think that the transformation we're currently enduring as society in the way we have control over the information we consume and how we consume it is something the WSJ took notice of years back and really, it likely resides in the foundation and core of its philosophy as an outlet. In a time when people are squirming and trying to figure out how to fit in to this new architecture of our culture, it makes me wonder where their heads were before. Clearly, not in the right place and not having the peoples best interests in mind. I'm happy to pay for what they put out because it's worth it. As discussed below, I do look forward to watching the monetization processes of othe mass media outlets as well as how the business model in journalism will change as a whole. Thanks again for the post Jason.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thank you for the comment. Great to hear the perspective of a
      subscriber. Glad you stopped by.

      ———————
      Jason Falls
      jason@jasonfalls.com
      Twitter: @JasonFalls
      C: 502.619.3285

  • Geike

    Amen! In the mid-80s I successfully held at bay our community newspaper subscribing to a wire service for three reasons: 1. it would make reporters lazy; they would always have enough copy to fill the paper whether they wrote local stories or not. 2. if an AP story were that local to us, then we should be reporting it and sending it to AP, not the other way around. 3. the subscription at that time cost as much as another full-time reporter, which I would have preferred. If we were to keep our mission and identity as a community newspaper, we had to do it the hard way: cover the news ourselves. Alas, I left the paper and within a few months they subscribed to AP. Now you only have to turn the page from the front to see what's going on everywhere except the community we purport to serve. Interestingly, it was the box scores for sports and the stock market reports that won the argument, and the paper doesn't even publish them anymore.

  • http://twitter.com/robquig Robert Quigley

    I think it's unfair to say that local papers are nothing more than “flyers” without the AP wire service. In most cities, the newspaper still provides more local news than any other outlet (often more than most outlets combined).

    As for this:
    “They can’t do it unless they’re willing to be more than just copy-paste engines with a few good writers covering stories relevant to their readers.”

    Is your local paper a copy-paste engine? Really? The newspapers I read are not. Great local journalism is still being produced by newspapers, and I can guarantee you that the focus of the staff writers at nearly every major metro paper is sharply local. Metro papers do not have international or national staff writers or bureaus anymore – they were cut when hard times fell. What they do have is local-focused reporters who are writing good local stories.

    You're right about The Wall Street Journal — it works behind a pay wall for the reasons you state: it's a financial niche, and it produces great content. We're all striving for that, though, and we all know our niche is local news.

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