paidContent.org - WSJ's Murray: Charging For Content Isn't Just For Financial Papers; WSJ To Offer 'Premium' Service

David Kaplan
paidContent.org
Wednesday, April 8, 2009; 11:06 AM

As newspaper companies search for a magic formula for replacing declining online ad revenue with some form of paid content, the conventional wisdom has been that only financial pubs like the FT.com and WSJ.com have the audience with deep enough pockets to support such a venture. But, oddly enough, WSJ.com executive editor Alan Murray tells Nieman Journalism Lab's Zachary Seward that anyone can do it.

While WSJ.com has gotten kudos for maintaining its pay wall from the beginning (Rupert Murdoch considered making the site free when he bought WSJ parent Dow Jones (NYSE: NWS) last year, but eventually decided against that), the site is preparing to unveil a new subscription product. The site will begin targeting a subset of subscribers with a "premium initiative" to sell "narrower information services" at a higher price. Murray was light on the details, but the first products will likely be centered around energy coverage and a news service aimed at CFO.

As for his advice on how even general, local pubs can follow WSJ.com's example, Murray has a few simple rules for building a successful pay wall:

?What should remain free: It's not an either/or proposition. Newspapers should mix free and pay. The way WSJ.com does it is to offer a mix of breaking news and general news, such as politics and arts, for free. And exclusives can't be hidden behind a pay wall, since a competitor will simply pick it up and benefit from the traffic the story attracts. One of the big mistakes newspapers have made in the past is charging for popular content. If it has wide appeal, it's pretty obvious that's what you should build advertising around. More of Murray's advice after the jump.

?Where to put the pay wall: Just as naturally, the kind of content that only attracts a small, niche following is what should be priced at a premium. While it's fairly easy to find that divide with financial news, Murray suggests that a local paper could possibly charge for high-school sports. Special features could also be attached to entice paying subs, like a photo service that allows fans and parents to download photos of their kids. Photos and videos do seem like a promising area for newspapers, especially for e-commerce ventures. For example, this week, the AP highlighted its revenue-sharing plan with its image service at the center. And as our Joseph Tartakoff noted, citing a Brightcove study, newspaper video uploads are rising.

?FT's model is "confusing": Murray also advises pubs to be clear about where the pay wall starts and stops. For example, FT.com readers get free access to 20 articles a month, after which, the pay wall comes up. Murray: "I have to confess, I don't really understand it. It's very confusing to me. You get some and then all of a sudden you start paying." Overall, the prospects for charging for newspaper content is going to take more than following a few simple rules. One of the built-in advantages financial sites have is that subs often bill the costs to their expense accounts or claim it as a tax write-off. However, Murray maintained the WSJ.com's claim that only 30 percent of its online subs do that, which seems strikingly low.

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