In 1996, Bill Clinton was getting ready for his re-election campaign, Atlanta was gearing up to host the Summer Olympics, and The Wall Street Journal officially launched its online edition. Just four months later, it became a subscription-only site.
As WSJ Online celebrates its 10th anniversary, it has held fast to that model despite what other online media outlets are doing. In fact, its success could set an example for the future of the newspaper industry as it continues to make the transition online.
The issue of a gated online news site is one that has been hotly debated among media critics and consumers alike. Last September, when The New York Times, which offers free subscriptions to its Web site, introduced its Times Select feature, which charges online readers for access to Op-Eds and other features, the response from media critics and bloggers was less than positive.
Yet this model is one that has worked for WSJ Online since its inception. Given the proliferation of free online business news sites, news aggregators, and blogs since the WSJ Online launch, one would have expected its numbers to decline. Instead, as of the first quarter of 2006, the site had 761,000 subscribers, a 4% increase from the same time last year.
From time to time, WSJ Online will flirt with the idea of free access, usually as short-lived marketing promotions, much like the 10-day "Open House" it held to celebrate its anniversary. Normally, the site makes a select number of features available for free, but the bulk of it remains behind that paid subscription wall.
Part of the reason why WSJ has been able to make the gated subscription model so successful is that it set the precedent for online business publications.
"The Journal deserves a lot of credit to having the foresight to go so aggressively online well before anyone else," says Bob Brody, SVP/media specialist at Ogilvy. "In that sense, WSJ.com is singularly ahead of its time."
As far as keeping its Web site's gated status, he adds that WSJ operates on the "Starbucks" principle: offering premium quality at premium prices.
"The Journal quite rightly recognized its value to its readers and was trading on that reputation," he notes.
Lloyd Trufelman, president of Trylon SMR, adds, "From day one, The Wall Street Journal took a very prescient and bold move to say, 'Hey, this is valuable, and you're going to pay for it.'"
Implementing paid subscription status so early in its history eliminated some of the issues facing newspapers that have slowly started charging for content after initially posting it for free.
"One reason the Journal has succeeded is that it adopted this strategy early rather than in midstream," Brody says. "Anyone else that comes along now is... going to get the backlash that you would expect from consumers."
As online publications increase in importance as a PR target, WSJ's site has become the desired placement for some clients, Trufelman says.
And when you're dealing with a placement in an online publication that requires a subscription - whether it's paid for by the individual or a company - and is therefore read by people who truly want to read it, rather than stumble upon a free article on a Web site, it can make that placement much more meaningful.
In fact, WSJ's success in the online news industry leaves it well positioned to be a leader in the evolving relationship of publications' Web sites to their print counterparts. Currently, WSJ charges a higher amount for its print subscription and offers the online subscriptions at a lower price. But that could change in the near future.
"They had a hunch. It's worked for 10 years," says Trufelman. "They're certainly in the best position to invert."