the audit

Paywalls did not cause the fall of WSJ longform

The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal misses the Murdoch
April 17, 2013

Alexis Madrigal asks whether The Wall Street Journal‘s paywall is responsible for its turning away from longform journalism. That one’s easy: No.

The Atlantic writer looks at the decline of longform journalism at The Wall Street Journal, which Dean Starkman and I (both alums of the paper) have been writing about for, oh, more than five years now.

Actually, Dean has been writing about this for six years now, since before Murdoch won the shareholder vote to take over Dow Jones. And it wasn’t a prediction, really. He was simply taking the man at his word, which in this instance at least was believable because it reflected past actions.

Which is just one reason why it’s strange that Madrigal looks at the decline of longform at the Journal, which coincides exactly with Murdoch’s purchase of the paper in late 2007 and with the defenestration of Marcus Brauchli a few months later, and ponders whether it was the WSJ’s “hard paywall” that caused the falloff.

Starkman suggests that Rupert Murdoch simply wanted to reduce the number of long stories.

I wonder how the Journal’s hard paywall might change their incentives for producing longer work. Does the upside of these kinds of stories get dampened because their stories can’t be shared as widely and easily? Perhaps it’s more important to satisfy the core business news audience who pay for the (digital and print) publication with shorter news and analysis.

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As you can see clearly from this chart I made two and a half years ago (and have updated here) showing 2,500 word stories at the Journal, this is not the case:

The Journal had a hard paywall from the beginnings of in 1996 (actually a few months after launch). It was only in about 2007 that it began really loosening things up, letting Digg users (remember them?) come in via that site and later allowing Google traffic to read stories found via search (ADDING: It has since tightened that up).

Now you could just as easily ask whether the leaky paywall triggered the decline in longform, but you’d also be going the wrong way.

And it’s not a matter of Dean simply suggesting or theorizing that Murdoch wanted something. We know from all the evidence that Rupert Murdoch and his editors wanted to get rid of or sharply reduce the WSJ’s long stories. They did away with half the paper’s leders—the long front-page narratives—almost immediately to open up the front page to commodity news.

Those are the unarguable facts. But we would, of course, argue against the idea that paywalls are longform killers, as well. Dean has written about how the free Web incentivizes Hamster Wheel journalism, a term he coined to frame the clicks-driven mentality of quantity over quality that is very clearly the Web’s m.o. Places like The Atlantic are the exception that proves the rule, and while there are encouraging signs that some of this is changing, it’s still a relatively minor movement.

The problem with clicks-driven journalism is that you’re always chasing the marginal reader who may or may not every visit you again, and you have to have to get millions and millions of these folks to make the numbers work.

With subscriber-driven journalism, you’re serving your core readers, and you’d better give them great, memorable stuff or they’ll take their money elsewhere. As I wrote a few years ago, it’s junk traffic versus loyal readers.

These aren’t hard and fast categories, obviously. The Financial Times doesn’t do much great longform. The Huffington Post has some very good longform reporting.

But I think it’s clear, broadly speaking, that the incentives, particularly as understood by most media management (see Advance Publications), lead in different directions.

That we can argue about. There’s no question, however, about what or who caused the WSJ’s longform fall-off.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.