Will a Free WSJ.com Pay Off for Murdoch?

NEW YORK The Web’s booming consumer-business category is bracing for the equivalent of a market-jolting earnings report.

News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch in late November made his strongest statement to date about what’s been rumored since his company acquired Dow Jones & Co., saying he “expects” The Wall Street Journal’s Web site, one of the few successful, subscription-based publications on the Internet, will soon become free.

That move, coupled with the recent launch of the new Fox Business Network site, would be enough to give the category agita. But it’s also becoming clear that Dow Jones, like all News Corp.-owned properties, will put forth an aggressive strategy. Both Murdoch and Journal publisher L. Gordon Crovitz have said in recent public comments that WSJ.com would seek to challenge giants like Yahoo Finance for traffic supremacy. The site now claims almost 1 million subscribers and the goal, Murdoch told News Corp. shareholders Nov. 13, is “at least 10 million to 15 million in every corner of the earth.”

Advertisers and publishers say they are keeping a close watch on Murdoch’s next move. Whatever Murdoch does, said Jim Spanfeller, CEO, Forbes.com, “it’s a really big deal.”

Any debate at News Corp. would center on whether to hang on to a proven, profitable subscription model—or dump it for the promise of more users and ads. Journal executives declined to comment.

“The challenging part is, you don’t know [the impact] until you do it,” Vivek Shah, president of the Time Inc. Business and Finance Network, said of converting paid subs to free. “And it’s hard to go back.”

Murdoch is surely eyeing the big audience numbers of the portal’s finance channels, as well as how sites like CNNMoney.com and Forbes.com deliver compared to WSJ.com (see chart); size still matters to advertisers.

“Because of the their model,” said Jeff Lanctot, svp, global media at Avenue A/Razorfish, “they are a smaller property.” That by nature, can sell only so many ads. Consider that Yahoo Finance generated 470 million page views in October, versus 11 million for WSJ.com, per comScore. “They could instantly become a more attractive property” if the site goes free, Lanctot added.

Not everyone believes a free WSJ.com is the right move. Pali Research analyst Richard Greenfield recently speculated that the Journal, which licenses content to sites like Yahoo Finance, might reconsider that practice as it looks to take them on.

MarketWatch.com founder Larry Kramer, now a senior advisor with Polaris Venture Partners, noted that “people don’t realize making the Journal free doesn’t automatically mean it becomes the biggest site.” He said WSJ.com would require a major philosophical adjustment to compete with the biggest sites. “WSJ.com is about producing analytical reports with an eye towards publishing once a day,” he said. “It’s not a real-time enterprise.” WSJ.com, he added, might have to embrace some level of news aggregation.

David Rittenhouse, senior partner and group planning director at neo@Ogilvy, raised another concern with a free Journal site: the loss of exclusivity. “WSJ.com’s pages are pretty clean,” he said. “There would be a tremendous temptation to change that.”

Plus, one of major appeals of the site is its pure audience concentration of business executives. “There aren’t 15 [million] to 20 million of those users out there,” Rittenhouse said.

Many predict Murdoch also has plans for Dow Jones’ MarketWatch. Kramer believes it’s the perfect property to kick start FoxBusiness.com, which has surprised many rivals by exceeding 2.1 million unique users in its first month (versus the 821,000 uniques at CNBC.com, relaunched a year ago). Expectations were low for the site due to Fox News’ lackluster foray into the Web. Observers have also slammed its design. But the site’s managing editor, Ray Hennessey, said FoxBusiness.com has an advantage FoxNews.com did not: It was built in conjunction with the channel. “Where things have gone wrong is there is an absolute disconnect between Web and TV presence,” he said. “We did it [right]. We’re not an afterthought.”

Hennessey sees no indication the site will be melded in some fashion with MarketWatch or WSJ.com, believing News Corp. is stronger with multiple assets.

Meanwhile, longtime leader Yahoo Finance continues to surge. But Mark Interrante, vp and gm, believes there is plenty of room . “It’s not a zero-sum game,” he said.

Others are not so sure. “Every site that can is adding content, tools, more stuff,” said Forbes.com’s Spanfeller. “If you’re at the lower end, it’s going to be hard to compete.”