Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Will Murdoch free the Journal's Web site?

More than a lot of CEOs, Rupert Murdoch is often willing to muse aloud about his plans. And, at a Goldman Sachs media confab in New York last week the topic of whether to stop charging people to visit the Web site of his newly-won prize, The Wall Street Journal, came up. The first thing the media baron said when asked about it is that he hadn't made is mind up yet, but that "it's certainly on the front burner to decide what to do there." Yet he also went on, as he has before, to point out the bull case for making the WSJ.com free and adding that it "looks like the way we are going."

In many quarters of the media world, free is the new paid. But Murdoch didn't get his News Corporation (Charts, Fortune 500) where it is by following the conventional wisdom. And having just paid an enormous premium to buy Dow Jones, the Journal's challenged owner, is he going to now dismantle one thing it seemed the company had right - its newspaper Web strategy?

He will certainly get resistance from some of the top brass at Dow Jones, who have proudly built the most successful paid newspaper Web site, which has nearly a million subscribers. "We have no present plans to change the model," Gordon Crovitz, the Journal's publisher, said in statement released to me. "Of course, we're operating in a dynamic online media environment, and we're always looking for ways to enhance our business news leadership and would make changes as new opportunities warrant."

One of those opportunities might be a new owner telling you what's what. Crovitz and other Dow Jones executives declined to comment further. The debate over whether publishers and other media outlets ought to charge for access to their content online is one of the chewiest of the moment. And the decision to make free material that is otherwise paid for in the "offline" world comes down to two key questions: one, will the web site being free generate more revenue from advertising then a paid site one? And, secondly, once the product becomes free online will people still want to pay for it in print?


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