Q&A: WSJ’s Membership GM on Why We’re Seeing More Paywalls for Digital Content

The Journal launched its wall over 20 years ago

WSJ was among the first to launch a paywall on its website, in 1997. Sources: Getty Images
Headshot of Sara Jerde

While more publishers, including Bloomberg, Vanity Fair, Business Insider and Adweek, have recently introduced paywalls, we wanted to know how one of the original digital subscription sites, The Wall Street Journal, has adapted its paywall since it launched more than 20 years ago.

Gone are the days when you could Google WSJ headlines and access the articles under Google’s First Click Free standard. The Journal’s paywall now has a more sophisticated, or “dynamic,” wall for nonsubscribers. Using readers’ first-person data, the publication can gauge how likely readers are to purchase a subscription, allowing WSJ to adjust access to the site reader by reader. The hope is that’s enough to pique their interest and motivate them to subscribe.

The Wall Street Journal has more than 2.4 million total digital and print subscriptions, according to the most recent figures available. News Corp CEO Robert Thomson said that was enough for WSJ publisher Dow Jones to surpass its 3 million total subscriber target.

Karl Wells, general manager of Wall Street Journal membership, told Adweek there’s a simple reason more digital publishers are building paywalls:

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: Why do you think we’re seeing more publishers move to a paywall?
Karl Wells: For a lot of publishers, ad dollars are being challenged by the increase in [ad spend] going to Facebook and Google. Also, publishers are probably seeing a flight to quality in that more and more people are recognizing quality journalism is worth paying for. The pivot to paid, for me, is a reflection of businesses trying to diversify their revenue stream.

Ultimately, a subscription business is built on a reoccurring revenue basis, which is much more predictable than an advertising business. You don’t know, in a month’s time, [if] an advertiser is either going to pull out or come in, whereas you can pretty much predict what your subscription revenue is going to be in the future.

Do you think readers’ willingness to pay for their news is changing?
Yeah, absolutely.

Willingness to pay is increasing, especially amongst a younger audience. When you’re hearing growth stories, you’re hearing growth stories from us, from The Wall Street Journal; The Washington Post is growing; The New York Times is growing. And I don’t think that’s just an American thing. We’re seeing growth in Europe as well. I think that’s just a general sign that willingness to pay is actually turning people into paying for quality journalism.

You launched the paywall in 1997. How do you think the industry is different today compared to even five years ago?
There’s a generation that are getting used to paying reoccurring subscription fees every month for content. Whether that content is audio, visual or the written word, it’s becoming more commonplace to have subscriptions. I don’t think it was that common five years ago.

But I think there’s also a trust issue. If your primary news source comes from a time line and your trust in what you’re reading in that time line is eroding, well then there’s always going to be a trend toward sources that you can trust. For us, The Wall Street Journal has been and continues to be one of the most trusted newspapers in America. It’s probably no surprise that as you’ve seen trust in platforms erode, you’ve seen subscriptions increase. Because if you want quality journalism that you can trust, well then, you’ve got to pay for it.

In terms of selling readers subscriptions, how do you weigh learning more about that reader and that reader’s security when you’re reviewing their information?
All the data that we use is first-party data, which when you come on to the site … you are an anonymous cookie, and we use the same information on that anonymous cookie as any other digital publisher would use.

Looking ahead, what might we see from the WSJ paywall?
You can’t stand still because the environment you operate in is forever changing. And I think the same would apply to the paywall, as it would to any piece of the pie that I work on. As soon as you stand still, then everyone else catches up. There was a day when we would say we have a dynamic paywall, and no one else did. And now, you go to a conference and there are more people talking about creating hybrid models and being able to predict whether someone is going to pay you or not. So, there’s a lot of thinking that goes on to say, ‘What’s our next frontier?’

We did a pretty good job of creating a paywall and keeping a paywall going for 20 years. I think my answer to that would be we probably won’t wait another 20 years to make a change to what we’ve created. But I like to think that it would be more of an iteration rather than a fundamental change, because I think what we’ve got is something special.

@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.
Publish date: May 21, 2018 https://dev.adweek.com/digital/qa-wsjs-membership-gm-on-why-were-seeing-more-paywalls-for-digital-content/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT