WSJ: Facebook app in one hand, paywall in the other

The Wall Street Journal has launched a “social reading” application for Facebook called WSJ Social, which lives on Facebook and allows users to share articles from the newspaper with each other for free (for now at least). To some, this feels a lot like what “portals” such as America Online and Compuserve did in the early days of the public internet, by trying to bring content into their walled gardens. For the WSJ, meanwhile, there is an obvious tension between providing articles on a public network like Facebook while still having a paywall — it feels like the paper wants to have its cake and eat it too, and it could wind up with neither.

The app is fairly straightforward: all a Facebook user has to do is be logged in and go to the WSJ Social address, and then authorize the app and a page appears with the app loaded and a selection of stories. Unlike the typical newspaper front page, the app shows only images, with a headline below and the number of “likes” and comments each article has received — along with some avatar icons to show who has interacted with it. If you click on the icon of a user, you can see their profile page, which shows the articles they have liked.

Access is free for all — for now

Also prominent on all pages is the logo of the app’s sponsors, Dell and Intel, whose sponsorship has made the app free for all users for at least the first month. What happens after that remains to be seen — the Journal’s deputy managing editor Alan Murray, executive editor of the paper’s online operations — hinted on Twitter that the app could remain free for longer than that (if other sponsors come forward, presumably). When users “like” an article, it appears in their stream, and users can also add other friends as “editors” within the app, so that they see their selections immediately.

Maya Baratz, the Journal’s head of new products — and a former product manager for Flickr and MTV Networks — told Forbes magazine that the idea behind the app was to make it easy for users of Facebook to “curate” the newspaper’s content for their friends. “It’s really about the users being elevated to editors,” she said (Baratz has also written a blog post on her own site about the reasoning behind the app, in which she says the paper is also trying to introduce a competitive aspect by showing which users have been selected as editors by the most people). Alisa Bowen, general manager of the WSJ Digital Network, said that it’s “about making [WSJ content] available where people are.”

Those goals are admirable ones for a mainstream media outlet like the Wall Street Journal. We’ve written a lot about how more and more people are using their “social graph” to curate and filter the news for them, rather than relying on editors at institutions like the WSJ to pick and choose what to read — an approach best summed up by the phrase “if the news is that important, it will find me.” And some media entities have made extremely good use of Facebook integration to boost the social value of their content, such as The Huffington Post, which has a social sidebar that shows your friends’ reading activity.

Building your audience inside a walled garden

Most of those kinds of efforts exist outside of Facebook, however, and use the social network’s platform plugins to make content more social — the Wall Street Journal has chosen to go with an app that lives inside Facebook, which Betaworks founder and CEO John Borthwick compared to the early days of America Online’s attempts to be a “portal” to the open web. Does it make any sense for the WSJ to set up shop within Facebook’s walled garden rather than its own website? Obviously the Journal believes that it does, but that is giving a lot of control over to Facebook.

While the goal of “reaching readers where they are” makes sense in a distributed world, there are already some pretty powerful ways for publications to allow their content to reach readers where they are — for example, a Twitter button and a Facebook button can instantly distribute that content to millions of people. What are the benefits of a standalone app on Facebook? The benefit to Facebook is obvious, in that it increases a user’s time spent on the network, but what does the Wall Street Journal gain from doing this? It feels like an attempt to box users in for marketing purposes.

But the biggest hurdle for the Journal is that the vast majority of its content still lives behind a paywall. While the app is free for a month, the paper has said that in the future it will include a mix of open access and paid access — although it’s not clear what the mix will be, or how the selection of stories within the app is made. What is clear is that when someone clicks on an article, there is a good chance they will run into a wall. What will their response be? Or will Facebook become the only way that non-subscribers can read WSJ stories? Again, that feels a lot like an AOL-type strategy.

When I mentioned on Twitter that a social-reading app seems odd coming from a newspaper with a paywall, Alan Murray responded that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and used the analogy of a person paying for coffee as a social act. My response was that most coffee shops don’t require customers to pay if they want to share their coffee with a friend, but that’s what the WSJ app seems to require. Murray said that the paper is looking at “creative ways” of enabling some sharing of paid content (something the New York Times has done by giving blog and Twitter links a “free pass”).

I think the Journal should get plenty of credit for experimenting with new services and trying to add social elements to its business. But I also think that trying to get more people to share and interact with your content and having a hard paywall are two very different approaches, and I’m not sure that blending the two is going to work all that well.