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From Pull to Point: How to Save The Economist and The Journal from Irrelevance

By - October 11, 2004

wsjThe night after the conference ended, I decompressed in my hotel room with Jonathan Weber, my editorial partner in the Industry Standard, and Steve Ellis, who runs an innovative music company called Pump Audio. Talk turned to what constituted “quality writing” in a journalistic sense. I’m not without a dog in this particular hunt, as it’s been the central premise of both my previous magazine launches, and is at the center of a new venture I’m noodling now that the conference is over. Steve, who is British, asked Jonathan and I if we thought the Wall Street Journal represented the paragon of American newspaper feature writing. And I thought, Jesus, I haven’t read that paper for months. I pay for the online version of the paper, but given how my reading habits have shifted from pull to point*, the Journal simply has not crossed my radar enough to register.

economistJonathan and I agreed that the Journal pretty much defined the American standard of good page one feature writing, and I copped to being “Journal blind” for the past few quarters. Talk then moved to The Economist. Goodness, it had been ages since I read that magazine as well. I used to subscribe to the paper version (same for the WSJ), and when I did, I signed up for a few email newsletters as well. But for whatever reasons those came intermittently, and they were not very good. Why, I wondered, were these two august bastions of journalism falling off my reading list?

You’ve already guessed, of course. Both require paid subscriptions, and therefore, both do not support deep linking. In other words, both are nearly impossible to find if you get your daily dose of news, analysis and opinion from the blogosphere.

Sure, The Wall Street Journal supports RSS feeds, but I’ve been a subscriber for two years, and they’ve never bothered to tell me that. (I found out when I went searching for them while writing this post). As far as I can tell, the Economist does not support RSS at all. Even if I did read the Journal’s feeds, I wouldn’t refer to them in any posts of mine, as my readers and community can’t read what I read. More and more, I find that if I can’t share something (i.e. can’t point to something), it’s not worth my time. (Please take note, RIAA…)

Simple RSS support is not the real issue here. The real issue is how paid registration is handled. I find, increasingly, that sites which wall themselves off are becoming irrelevant. Not because the writing or analysis is necessarily flawed (though honestly, I don’t trust journalists who eschew the blogosphere), but rather because their business model is. In today’s ecosystem of news, the greatest sin is to cut oneself off from the conversation. Both the Economist and the Journal have done that.

So what is to be done? My suggestion is simple: Take the plunge and allow deep linking. Notice I did not say abandon paid registration, in fact, I support it. Publishers can let the bloggers link to any story they post, but limit further consumption of their site to paid subscribers.

I’d be willing to wager that the benefit of allowing the blogosphere to link to you will more than make up for potential lost subscribers. First off, if you as a publisher do not offer additional paid subscription benefits beyond the articles themselves, you’re not paying attention to your community. And in any case, many folks will pay to subscribe to a site which is continually being linked to. In fact, I’d wager that the landing pages from blog links might be the most lucrative place a publisher can capture new subscribers. It’s a massive opportunity to convert: the reader has come to your site on the recommendation of a trusted source (the blog he or she is reading). It’s pretty certain that if you make that page inviting, and use it as an opportunity to sell the reader on the value of the rest of your site, that that reader will eventually feel like the Journal is worthy of his or her support.

Why? In short, if a reader finds him or herself pointed to the Journal on a regular basis, that reader knows that by subscribing to the Journal, he or she would be more in the know. After all, all of the blogs read and point to the Journal, the reader thinks, so perhaps I should read it too. Before subscribing, the only time a reader might find out something in the Journal is if someone points to it (a far sight from where things stand today, by the way). But if they subscribe, they can get their own RSS feeds, and be first to know something. And, in the end, isn’t that what drives subscription sales?

Net net, I think allowing deep linking will drive subscription sales, rather than attenuate them.

I’d be interested in Searchbloggers’ take on this idea. I think it just might work.

*”Pull to point” – I find that I read more things that have been pointed to by others, rather than only those which I pull down myself.

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23 thoughts on “From Pull to Point: How to Save The Economist and The Journal from Irrelevance

  1. NF says:

    Exactly right. I’ve been a WSJ subscriber for 20 years, but now I’m getting news from blogs I read less than 1 WSJ a week, and just started to wonder whether it is worth having to toss all that paper.

    Off topic: where did you say we could find the Web 2.0 presenters’ slides posted? The more I think about it about it the more I remember the Craigslist guys packing onto their one hilarious, totally de-hyped slide.

  2. Paul Carr of The Guardian has some interesting take on why bloggers are good for profits. Since implementing a system similar to what you suggest their traffic has gone up “alarmingly” and weekly paid subscriptions have increased 20%.

  3. JD Lasica says:

    John, smart and forward-looking suggestion.

    There are two separate issues here: (1) link rot at papers that don’t require a subscription and (2) the walled garden approach at papers that do. Too long to discuss in the comments field here, so I posted some thoughts here.

  4. rcjordan says:

    I’d been an avid reader/subscriber of BusinessWeek for 40 years and The WSJ for 35. I gave them up a couple of years ago as I increasingly found that they lagged at least a day behind my internet reading list. I began to annoy my wife when I started telling her what the ticker stories were about on CNN Headline News. Now I read foreign newspapers on a daily basis to get a less biased (ok, a diffently biased) opinion. Local news? They have a website. My only real concern is who will provide my feeds when we’ve cannibalized all of the news retailers?

  5. Andrew G says:

    Well, I’m pretty sure my father-in-law, who for all I know is the (72-year-old) average reader of The Economist these days, doesn’t care what you think. And vice-versa, no doubt.

    The concept of “cutting oneself off from the conversation” means so much to the likes of “us,” and is some kind of generational divide, I suspect. Eventually things just change because change is forced on the old publishers (or they die). I notice that my daily paper The Globe and Mail Report on Business *finally* shrunk down that huge section of the paper where they print day-old stock quotes. Fancy that…

    To someone who is really “past it,” like my 93-year-old grandmother, you seem to be speaking in some kind of code.

    There are *conversations*? Isn’t wisdom transmitted top-down and read cover to cover?

    But pretty much everyone else needs to listen. Where it all leads is a tough call, though. At some point somebody’s got to pay for something. I suspect companies like Yahoo might do a roaring business in selling “bundles” of premium content, while throwing some crumbs to the original publishers. Once again it appears that portals are poised to profit from the trend, whereas many others are in trouble because they have limited leverage over readers/users. (Must… study… cable… TV… business… feeling… ignorant…)

    Based on reading your item above I added some WSJ channels to my RSS list. A fat lot of good that did. Nothing more vexing than having a list of “top story” headlines that say [$$] next to them, especially when it takes three seconds to go to Google News, type in the same story item, and find out a free Reuters story on the same subject is already circulating.

    This shall be rectified in future with multiple access levels filtered by trusty Yahoo et al, I think. I just hope they don’t underestimate how much professionals will be willing to pay for really premium stuff with “status” perks like exclusive print publications and invites to seminars and so on. We live in an age of mass affluent and the types of users I’m talking about will be even one notch above that… highly educated, very well paid most times, and having no interest in messing around with various logins and controlled-access schemes. They’ll want VIP service. Also, that service/premium info pipeline will have to follow them wherever they go, into the airport, hotel room, car, park, cafe, etc. It’s a huge market. To service this very different market it will indeed be possible to “go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

  6. I advocated this very idea for several years when I was design director at economist.com. My superiors found it interesting but uncompelling; too many corollary issues surround changing the business model, which is profitable these days.

    I remain an old-media guy in a new-media world, and I still enjoy reading The Economist in print. But the walled-garden effect is most certainly eroding the online reader base, and could impact subscriptions–and therefore relevance–in the longer term.

  7. Dylan Tweney says:

    John, the WSJ does allow you to share articles with non-subscribers. When you click on the button at the bottom of an article that says “Email This,” you can email a link that will be accessible to non-subscribers for up to 7 days. Many bloggers use this feature to email a link to themselves, which they then blog — enabling readers to check out WSJ articles, if only for a few days.

    The process could be more seamless for bloggers — but at least it is possible. The WSJ has the right idea, they’re just slightly behind technologically.

    BTW, I still read the WSJ regularly, but only online. Their site remains one of the best-organized news sites, so it’s very easy to browse — although their RSS feeds could be more extensive, and yes, they’ve done a poor job of publicizing the feeds.

  8. Pierre says:

    THE WSJ’s print edition isn’t likely to become irrelevant until high quality portable devices that can be used in NYC subways are made available. Given the concentration of people in the financial industry in NYC who read this newspaper every day commuting to the office, even if this market is the last hold out, it’s the most important one to WSJ. Having said that, for all of the other readers/subscribers in cities around the world who drive or walk to work, the portability feature is irrelevant.

    John’s concept is genius because he’s not suggesting that the WSJ become a free purely advertiser supported pub, but rather enable deep linking to a story fm where the WSJ can use all of the real-estate around the story (for non-subscribers) to pitch other stories and features that could make one *want* to subscribe to the online edition. Seems like a bonanza for them and what’s better is all that free advertising they’d effectively be getting fm any blogger that’s deep linking to their site.

    I suspect that much like the RIAA, old world thinking is still prevolent in these halls of wisdom, and they’re having a tough time understanding how to take advantage of what the future is offering them…very sad ’cause the biz oppty is so much bigger than they have the ability to imagine :-(

  9. Dylan Tweney says:

    Oops — I just tested my assertion, above, and found that you cannot blog the WSJ’s email links any longer. So, the only way you can share WSJ stories with non-subscribers is via email. No blogging, alas. This is a definite problem, I agree!

  10. I’ve been working on a business model to solve the content producers’ dilemma and at the same time satisfy the content consumer. I agree that unless the WSJ and Economist (and Nature and Science and so on) change their linking behaviors, they will become irrelevant simply because no one finds them anymore. There was also an article on this topic in Wired Magazine called “Searching for the New York Times” by Adam Penenberg.

    I’ve posted my ideas on this business model/company (called “SubscriptionPal”) on my work experience blog.

    Comments welcome!

    Cynthia Typaldos
    Typaldos.com

  11. That is a key reason industry analyst firm business models are set for a major overhaul too. deep linking is where semantics emerges. fwiw The Economist positions itself as “the authority” rather than “an authority” – not conversational thinking

  12. Well, my WSJ subscription just came up for renewal, and I decided to save the money and not renew. I can always buy an individual copy at a box or read it for free in the banker’s lobby.

    I’ll be taking my letter to the editor – http://vielmetti.typepad.com/vacuum/2004/10/why_im_not_rene.html – and shipping it off snail mail.

  13. Nemo Fish says:

    I find it very interesting when a arguably intelligent person walls themselves off from possibly insightful information simply because, to be coarse, they get annoyed when the ink rubs off on their fingers.

    As someone who reads blogs, blogs, uses RSS voraciously, picks up magazines on the shelf, and continues to read, daily online, the FT, WSJ, NYT, and a myriad of other old media, this argument seems to miss the point.

    You stopped reading these sites because you aren’t a reader — you are a pointer. And pointing is great (I do it all the time, often lucratively), but don’t confuse it with the value of the content.

  14. I’m pleased I’m arguably intelligent! Well, I do read, and a lot. Most of my reading (outside of novels) has moved online. I read nearly everything that people I trust point me to. Again, most of that is online. My point is not that I’ve abandoned print, my god, I started half a dozen print publications in my life. Rather, that if you do great content, it’s best to be in this new conversation, rather than out of it.

  15. Brad Byrd says:

    I’ve always liked the Salon.com model: premium content access for one day if you are willing to sit through an interstitial ad. It’s a good balance between premium content and open access. In my mind, this is one situation where users are “willing” to sit through the ads, and the interstitial format has the potential to be somewhat compelling too — similar to a television ad.

    I’ve always thought this might offer hints of the direction online advertising is going — user-permission to show advertisements in exchange for access to premium content…it’s a model that would make sense to old world media and old world advertising agencies. And it makes even more sense when you consider the possibility to have those ads become better targeted and relevant to individual users: think contextual or behavioral targeting via interstitials, and you can see where I’m going…

    Beyond all that, I think its a great lure for new subscriptions becaause it lets users “try before they buy”.

    Does anyone have feedback on how well this model works for Salon?

  16. I am not an avid rss fan though there are people I follow. When I go to a print publication I am pretty sure what I am going to get. There is an editorial process involved. With a blog there has to be deeper linking because many times people will send me something and I will wonder who is this person. They do not carry the credibility of a brand. Now much has damaged the New York times and even Dan Rather in the credibility circle. I may trust the person who sent the blog over but it takes a lot.

    There is another issue of keeping subcribers loyal and responding to the needs of media. When Tony Perkins of Red Herring started AlwaysOn-Network he wanted to link the blogs to the people. So it became the first content based community.

    Blogs are social only in that I can respond to you. In that way I a questioning reporter would.
    You are telling your experience and drawing conclusions. So the act can be empowering to the readers. They can ask the questions they want or offer an alternative oppinion.

    I think what will save publications is providing an online destination. More than a forum to move forward in the age of exchange.

  17. “The Tribune Co. announced this morning that circulation at its two largest papers, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, experienced steep declines….

    ….Fuller said that most of the declines occurred in single copy and home delivery.”

    Source: EditorandPublisher.com

  18. My WSJ and SJMN comes up for renewal this week and i seriously considering to not renew these. Not that they occupy more space than my laptop!!! not that they are filled by so much ads !!! not that they are biased!!! but that the rss and blog aggregators have become a part of my daily life now and life demands a news junkie’s time for other stuff like earning a living as well… so i concur with an earlier comment i have read just one in a week …

  19. I’d been an avid reader/subscriber of BusinessWeek for 40 years and The WSJ for 35. I gave them up a couple of years ago as I increasingly found that they lagged at least a day behind my internet reading list. I began to annoy my wife when I started telling her what the ticker stories were about on CNN Headline News. Now I read foreign newspapers on a daily basis to get a less biased (ok, a diffently biased) opinion. Local news? They have a website. My only real concern is who will provide my feeds when we’ve cannibalized all of the news retailers?

  20. Plywood says:

    Before you dismiss the idea as mere speculation, let me lay out a scenario in which such a beast exists. First, imagine that a majority of households have a digital video recorder of one kind or another

  21. Gry says:

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  22. Matt Mankins says:

    And many years later, we’re still having this debate. I throw In-a-Moon into the ring as a solution to the “what do we pay for content” problem.

    Brief overview at:
    http://www.slideshare.net/mankins/inamoon-overview