The Economist Eats the WSJ 's Lunch

Because there is so much information available on the internet free and because more and more people are using the internet as their main source for information, consumers of information content are becoming more discriminating. Interesting, well-written, thoughtful content thrives and boring, poorly written, mindless content gets little or no traction or traffic among educated, discriminating consumers.

And because there is so much information available free, surfing for good content is free and easy and, therefore, it's easy to break old information consumption habits and to sample new content and switch preferences.

So, in these conditions, what business and economic information content is thriving and what business and economic content isn't?

Obviously, most business content printed on paper and distributed the old fashioned way via the mail or newsstands is dying. Not only are readers going away, but advertisers are deserting most newspapers and magazines faster than consumers are -- with one exception, the Economist.

In June, Folio reported "Economist Group's Profit Jumps 26 Percent."

The London-based company, which publishes its namesake magazine, reported approximately $92 million in operating profit, up 26 percent over the previous 12-month period. Revenue was up 17 percent to roughly $514.2 million.

The Economist uses a business model that Chris Anderson in his book Free refers to as freemium. In other words, the Economist gives some content on its website away free but charges for full access to all of its magazine online content. If you want to get full online access, you have to subscribe to the print edition, which costs $126.99 a year, for which you get a special world business forecast issue, 20 special reports a year, and a technology quarterly supplement.

Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal also uses a freemium model. You can get free access to some of its content on the Web, but full access to the same information that is in the daily printed version costs. The WSJ's pricing model is $1.99 a week ($103.48 a year) for Web only access, $2.29 a week ($119.08 a year) for just the print edition delivered to your home, and $2.69 a week ($139.88 a year) for both the print edition and full access to the website.

The Economist makes a lot of money and the WSJ loses a lot of money, even though they both have a freemium business model for their Web offering. Why? Because the Economist prints and sends in the mail a magazine once a week and the WSJ prints and delivers by hand or sends in the mail a newspaper daily. The WSJ's costs are a lot higher.

But lower costs are not the main reason the Economist is growing faster; its content is better. And the WSJ's is getting more boring and less about business under Murdoch.

Mark Potts, who blogs as the Recovering Journalist, writes:

Longtime Journal fans (and I'm one) worry that the paper has moved too far away from the insightful, savvy and even entertaining coverage of the business world that had been its bread and butter for decades. The Journal's day in, day out business reporting -- with some very notable exceptions -- has become much more pedestrian lately, scrubbed of many of its formerly lovable quirks. That may reflect a recognition that a great deal of good business reporting and analysis is widely available elsewhere on the Web, something that threatens the futures of business-news stalwarts like BusinessWeek (for sale), Fortune (being redesigned and rethought, yet again) and Forbes (in management turmoil). In that context, the Journal is just smartly tacking in another direction.

Still, I miss the Journal's depth and insight into business coverage. It's just not as interesting a read as it was before Murdoch. The formerly wonderful and eclectic Marketplace section has been gutted, for instance, and a lot of the paper's former personality has gone by the wayside. That's what made it valuable and unique, and I daresay it's one of the things that made its much-vaunted online subscription model a success. Subscribers paid for the online (and offline) version of the Journal because there was nothing like it as a source of vital, interesting and readable financial news and information.

The Economist's content is intelligent, well written, and well researched. And because it's the best business and economic content on the Web (and in print), it can charge for it (although not quite as much as the WSJ does) and continue to sell ads at high rates because of its desirable audience.

This is a trend -- people will pay for excellent, intelligently written, insightful content because it's now easy to find it on the Web. Discerning people will stray from boring, unremarkable content because news brands don't mean as much as they used to.

The New York Times has lost its brand for reliable information, except in art, culture, and food, and the Wall Street Journal under Murdoch has lost its brand for insightful, well-written business coverage.

No matter what kind of brand it is (news, information, celebrity gossip, or tech gossip), a brand has to earn its stripes every day in the open, searchable, free environment of the Web. The Times and the WSJ have lost their business information stripes by being inaccurate or boring or irrelevant (or all three).

And the Economist has eaten their lunch.