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Advertisers wary of WSJ.com plan to drop subscription firewall

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For Mike Paradiso, VP-global media director of CA, eliminating the Wall Street Journal Online's paid subscription model—as Rupert Murdoch has proposed—doesn't have to be so cut and dry.

"I prefer a hybrid model," said Paradiso, who includes WSJ.com and its print companion in most of CA's marketing campaigns. "Maybe 70% of the content is free, but in terms of archives and insight, Dow Jones can provide a lot of value and the marketplace would be willing to pay for it."

No official announcement has been made regarding WSJ.com's fate as News Corp. prepares to officially close its $5.6 billion acquisition of the Journal's owner, Dow Jones & Co. The acquisition is expected to be wrapped up this month.

News Corp. Chairman-CEO Rupert Murdoch has made little secret of his desire to stop charging for access to WSJ.com's content. Last month, he told News Corp. shareholders in Adelaide, Australia: "We are studying it, and we expect to make [the Journal] free, and instead of having 1 million [subscribers], having at least 10 million to 15 million in every corner of the earth, keeping up-to-date, minute by minute, with all business and economic news from around the world." He added: "We think that, in turn, will attract relatively large sums of ad revenue" to make up for the loss in subscription revenue.

Dow Jones declined to comment on plans for WSJ.com.

A key question for marketers is what would happen to WSJ.com's ad rates if News Corp. abandons the paid subscription model.

"They could be more expensive because advertisers would be trading off a higher CPM for a bigger footprint of impressions," Paradiso said. "But they could end up being close to current rates or [see] a slight decline because the demographics are going to change compared to current users based on the paid model."

WSJ.com has grown to more than 1 million paid subscribers. Dow Jones charges $99 for an annual subscription to the site, or $49 for those who already receive the print edition of the Journal.

The Journal is the only major U.S. newspaper to charge for its online content, since The New York Times in September scrapped its 2-year-old partial-paid subscription model.

CA's Paradiso said that while a free WSJ.com would probably not alienate business advertisers, whose messaging typically is targeted rather than mass, Dow Jones would have to offer "something unique that other Web sites can't do" to keep the ad dollars flowing. "It could be targeting from a behavioral or contextual standpoint, but they're going to have to make up for what's lost in the paid model," he said.

WSJ.com seems to be gravitating toward a free model. It recently announced a partnership with news and content-sharing Web site Digg.com enabling Web users to post WSJ.com articles on Digg.

Ken Doctor, media analyst at research and advisory company Outsell Inc., said making WSJ.com free may force advertisers to choose between "less is more or more is more."

In the less is more equation, advertisers can reach a relatively narrow yet "incredibly high end of the market" in terms of decision-makers, Doctor said. "More is more is the free model, giving advertisers pools of potential buyers they might not otherwise reach, and that's good."

B-to-b media buyers are on the fence. In a free model, WSJ.com would likely require people to register, which should enable business advertisers to continue targeting their messages, said Chris Philip, chief experience officer of b-to-b ad agency Doremus.

"More is more, but in this case maybe not," he said, referring to the spike in WSJ.com traffic that's expected should the Web site go free. "Without being able to still target, it's going to be hard for b-to-b advertisers to justify their spending."

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