The Wall Street Journal is not only the best-written, most elegantly edited newspaper to cover business, it may be the best paper period. But some clumsy decisions about web content are making it insignificant in the online world.
Because of its immense clout and vast resources — the Journal might assign half a dozen reporters to the telecommunications beat while The New York Times and Washington Post each have one — publicists feed it exclusives, sources leak it information and corporate chieftains plead for the privilege of having their cartoon portraits grace Page 1. All of this helps the Journal maintain its competitive edge.
Given all of this, it might be hard to believe that The Wall Street Journal is in danger of becoming irrelevant, but it is.
That’s not to say that no one reads the Journal anymore. The paper version boasts a daily circulation of 2.1 million, just a shade under the 2.3 million who skim USA Today, which claims to be America’s most popular paper (although how many of these “readers” leave their free copies untouched in their hotel rooms is anyone’s guess). WSJ Online, launched in 1996, reports an additional 684,000 paid subscribers. Because the Journal sells more ads than it can possibly run, Dow Jones, the Journal’s master, plunked down half-a-billion dollars in November for MarketWatch, which operates MarketWatch.com.
Nevertheless, the Journal faces an intractable problem. Because you have to subscribe to access both current news articles and the archive, the Journal is leaving only a faint footprint in cyberspace. As with The New York Times, which insists that readers register to view news and pay $3 per article in the archive, the Journal barely shows up on Google or any other search engine. I googled “Enron” — an issue the Journal covered exhaustively, and which two of its reporters even wrote a book about — and not one article appeared within the first 25 pages (250 results.)
Then I rigged the test by plugging in “Wall Street Journal” and “Enron” and still struck out (although I did pull up a couple of Journal stories specially edited for high school classes.) If you can input the name of your publication into a search engine and not come up with any stories, you must be digitally tone-deaf.
And in the rare event a Wall Street Journal article does pop up and you click on the link, you will likely encounter a message that informs you, “The page you requested is available only to subscribers.” To access the article would cost you $79 a year, or $7 a month ($39 a year if you also subscribe to the print edition).
Since most people refuse to pay for WSJ stories, most bloggers are reluctant to link to them. It also has an impact on anyone who uses the web for research — and there are a lot of us. As importantly, the next generation of readers is growing up by accessing news over the internet, and one place they are not surfing to is WSJ.com. With their habits being formed now, there is little chance the Journal will become part of their lives, either now or in the future.