What The Wall Street Journal Has, Few Will Match
What The Wall Street Journal Has, Few Will Match
by Jason Falls

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.