It's (semi-) official. According to a blurb in this morning's Washington Post, News Corp. (NYSE: NWS ) oligarch Rupert Murdoch has decided to follow New York Times' (NYSE: NYT ) lead. By the end of this year, the company will probably stop charging for access to The Wall Street Journal's WSJ.com website.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Last month, my esteemed but misguided fellow Fool Rick Munarriz argued that this is actually a good idea. I disagree. It's a dumb idea for three reasons, the first being this: As Rick pointed out last month, nearly 1 million print subscribers to the Journal are currently charged extra if they want access to its online doppelganger. Remove the "extra," and News Corp. will lose a sizable stream of cash unconnected to the vagaries of the online advertising market.
True, there's some method to Murdoch's madness. He expects to replace and expand on the lost revenue stream by garnering a larger one in the form of online advertising revenue. Take away the price tag on WSJ.com access, and he'll certainly attract more readers -- readers that advertisers will pay a pretty penny to reach. Also true, online advertising continues to boom as a business, with everyone from Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) to ValueClick (Nasdaq: VCLK ) to Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) AOL raking in plenty of pretty pennies of their own. But remember what happened right after the last time online advertising boomed? That's right. Then came the bust, and early indications are suggesting that a new bust is forming even as we speak.
But Murdoch's taking on more than just a risk of "buying at the top" (OK, technically it's stopping selling at the top). The key reason that Murdoch bid $5 billion for the Journal in the first place was that the publication has a great brand -- one that could add heft to New Corp.'s new Fox Business Channel as it takes on GE's (NYSE: GE ) CNBC. Remember the old adage "You get what you pay for?" Well, it applies to online content, too. Once people stop being asked to pay for WSJ.com access, it will lose its status as the only "premium" pay-for-content provider in the mainstream media.
It's hard to put a price on quality, but whatever the Journal's reputation is worth, Murdoch runs the risk of devaluing it when he opens the online doors to the masses.
Stupid, stupid, stupid
Third, and finally, not charging for online access could cost News Corp. more than just the price of online access. As print Journal subscribers (like yours Fool-y) know, there are times when you see something in the hard copy of the paper, and you just have to make sure that a friend or colleague on the other side of the world sees it, too. In such situations, having the ability to instantly log on and email a copy of the article halfway around the globe is, as MasterCard might put it, "priceless." Now Murdoch aims to make that literally true.
But this works both ways. News emergencies like the one I described above notwithstanding, some readers (also like yours Fool-y) just plain prefer to read their news the old-fashioned way most days. To sink into a lounge chair and indulge in the rustling of paper. For readers who need both services, the ability to buy access to WSJ.com at a discounted rate, when it is paired to a hard copy subscription, works as an inducement to ante up for that hard copy subscription in the first place. Simply put, it's a complementary pairing -- online and print, two great tastes that taste great together.
Murdoch now aims to split up this successful team, all in the interests of chasing hot online advertising money. In doing so, he'll not only lose a tool for selling papers. Thanks to the "allure of free," he'll lose yours Fool-y as a print subscriber as well, as I follow my wallet -- online.