Thursday, March 31, 2005

Dow Jones' Crovitz Defends Subscription Online Content: Right Battle, Wrong Question?

Reuters carries the comments of Gordon Crovitz, head of Dow Jones' online efforts, at the recent Bank of America media conference, in which Crovitz notes that free content on the Web with paid print content "is an unsustainable business model," and that publishers are devaluing their brands in the process. It's a true statement, but perhaps answering the wrong question. On the first front, there's no question that online revenues must drive access to both least-common-denominator and high end readers, even as print is becoming a specialty media service that caters to the either highest end of customers or the lowest, as with the free "street" publications being scooped up by major paper chains. In both models the middle is hard to sustain, and it's really the middle model in most marketing efforts that's under threat, regardless of the media in question. Just as medium-sized run-of-the-mill supermarkets were squeezed out by superstores and category-killer health food stores, it's questionable whether there's a long-term future for mass-market publications that cannot compete in the broadest marketplace or with a much more elite and focused clientele.

Dow Jones has a great editorial staff and is to be admired for its belief in premium content subscriptions, but a sober eye has to admit that WSJ Online is a product not that much different than any other online general business publication. You can continue to price the goods any way you want, but at the end of the day if the storefront's the wrong fit for the marketplace you must either change the goods in the store or find new channels. Looking at the strength of brands with broader market access such as Google or Dow Jones' own MarketWatch property and the strength of more specialized brands such as ALM there's an argument for a mix of high-margin-special and low-margin-general content that's likely to drive publishing markets for the foreseeable future. In the middle will be companies doing a great job of creating new value out of content regardless of its sources - companies that thrive on The New Aggregation model. Long live premium content - in the right package at the right place at the right time.
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