The trouble with news content pay walls.

Undoubtedly the biggest and most heated debate among newspaper publishers, journalists and other media types in 2009 was the question of the pay wall: Since the recession has slowed online advertising growth, should we go back to charging readers for content?

Without rehashing the entire debate, everybody knows that one person who has advocated most enthusiastically for paid content is Rupert Murdoch, owner of the News Corporation.

While I tend to think that pay walls are probably suicidal for most newspapers, I do think that News Corp’s Wall Street Journal has a lot of high-quality content that people will (and do) pay for. For those following business and finance news especially, the WSJ is contains invaluable insight from some of the best journalists in the world.

However, I think the WSJ could be a bit smarter about its pay wall, and should consider keeping some of its content open. Here’s an example:

Wall Street Journal's pay wall

Here’s a story about Google’s new mobile handset, locked behind a “subscribers only” pay wall. To read it (and much more), I would have to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal Online for $103.48 per year.

Putting aside the well-known Google News pay wall backdoor, this speaks to a major conceptual flaw in the idea of charging for online news content: I do not need the Wall Street Journal to tell me about Google’s new mobile phone. Or anything about what Google announces. Or what Facebook does. Or frankly, virtually any tech-related news. This information is already being disseminated by hundreds of other outlets, some traditional, some new.

Now, don’t get me wrong; WSJ and their blog All Things Digital have some great, high-quality tech coverage. But so do those hundreds of other sites. If one site out of 400 is charging me to read an article on a particular topic, I’m probably not going to pay. The Wall Street Journal may continue to succeed, by virtue of being the Wall Street Journal, but for other news organizations, there’s just way too much competition for this kind of strategy to work.

This isn’t to say that some news and information publishers couldn’t come up with a way to produce and package really high-quality content that readers would consider worth paying for. But simply building a pay wall around text-based news on a Web site is probably not going to be a winning strategy for most.

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