Whither The Wall Street Journal?

Adam L. Penenberg
Wired News, 02.24.05

The Wall Street Journal is not only the best-written, most elegantly edited newspaper to cover business, it may be the best paper period.

Because of its immense clout and vast resources — the Journal might assign half a dozen reporters to the telecommunications beat while The New York Times and Washington Post each have one — publicists feed it exclusives, sources leak it information and corporate chieftains plead for the privilege of having their cartoon portraits grace Page 1. All of this helps the Journal maintain its competitive edge.

Given all of this, it might be hard to believe that The Wall Street Journal is in danger of becoming irrelevant, but it is.

That’s not to say that no one reads the Journal anymore. The paper version boasts a daily circulation of 2.1 million, just a shade under the 2.3 million who skim USA Today, which claims to be America’s most popular paper (although how many of these “readers” leave their free copies untouched in their hotel rooms is anyone’s guess). WSJ Online, launched in 1996, reports an additional 684,000 paid subscribers. Because the Journal sells more ads than it can possibly run, Dow Jones, the Journal‘s master, plunked down half-a-billion dollars in November for MarketWatch, which operates MarketWatch.com.

Nevertheless, the Journal faces an intractable problem. Because you have to subscribe to access both current news articles and the archive, the Journal is leaving only a faint footprint in cyberspace. As with The New York Times, which insists that readers register to view news and pay $3 per article in the archive, the Journal barely shows up on Google or any other search engine. I googled “Enron” — an issue the Journal covered exhaustively, and which two of its reporters even wrote a book about — and not one article appeared within the first 25 pages (250 results.)

Then I rigged the test by plugging in “Wall Street Journal” and “Enron” and still struck out (although I did pull up a couple of Journal stories specially edited for high school classes.) If you can input the name of your publication into a search engine and not come up with any stories, you must be digitally tone-deaf.

And in the rare event a Wall Street Journal article does pop up and you click on the link, you will likely encounter a message that informs you, “The page you requested is available only to subscribers.” To access the article would cost you $79 a year, or $7 a month ($39 a year if you also subscribe to the print edition).

Since most people refuse to pay for WSJ stories, most bloggers are reluctant to link to them. It also has an impact on anyone who uses the web for research — and there are a lot of us. As importantly, the next generation of readers is growing up by accessing news over the internet, and one place they are not surfing to is WSJ.com. With their habits being formed now, there is little chance the Journal will become part of their lives, either now or in the future.

As a result, there is a meme that has begun to take hold that questions the Journal‘s long-term relevancy. It began, I believe, last fall with John Battelle, founder of the defunct Industry Standard, who realized he couldn’t remember the last time he had read The Wall Street Journal, even though he is a subscriber. Since he couldn’t share links with his community (read: bloggers), he ended up passively boycotting it. Battelle suggested the Journal partially open up its doors to bloggers by allowing them to link to specific stories, which they could share with their readers, but if they wanted to access any other part of the site, they’d have to pay up like everybody else.

J.D. Lasica, a former editor for The Sacramento Bee, followed up with a blog post entitled, “When publications remove themselves from the conversation,” in which he confessed that he planned to let his Journal subscription run out because he couldn’t link to his favorite writers. He believes the Journal, with its “walled garden” policy, is shutting off its site to newcomers.

Not to be outdone, Michael “Burn Rate” Wolff, the prickly pundit for Vanity Fair, gave a speech last week at a media conference in New York in which he said The Wall Street Journal had “stopped mattering” because of its online strategy. “The Journal felt that it was powerful enough to charge, and for a long time everyone regarded the Journal’s activities online as the ultimate,” Wolff said. “They had unlocked the puzzle. In fact, I don’t think they did. I think they locked themselves into a puzzle.”

What’s the Journal‘s response? More print, and over the weekend, no less. In the near future, Dow Jones plans to roll out an edition on Saturday, which for most papers is the day with the lowest circulation. The reason: The Journal hopes to appeal to female readers, who don’t get to see the paper because their husbands have taken it with them to read on the train or over coffee in the morning.

But lame attempts like this to lure female readers won’t make the Journal more relevant. What it needs is a new online strategy. The Journal should take the bold step of jettisoning its subscriber model and open up its archive to the public. In the end, it would make up the loss of subscriber revenue with money from advertising, which has been growing briskly. Sure, it might take a while — perhaps many years — but this is the only way for it to ensure its long-term survival.

A radical move like this would also send shivers down the spines of competitors like Forbes.com, which doesn’t charge for content and got rid of registration requirements when it discovered they drove away traffic. One reason Forbes.com was able to get off the ground was that it offered free content while the Journal made people pay. If the Journal hadn’t done that, Forbes.com might not have become the online power it is.

Most importantly, the Journal could secure its legacy as one of the world’s great newspapers, both off- and online. And what’s that worth?

Copyright 2005 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)