The Wall Street Journal is borrowing elements from popular Internet hangouts like Facebook as it seeks to boost usage.
WSJ.com, one of the few news sites to restrict many of its stories to paying subscribers, is changing its layout to help nonpaying visitors navigate and identify free, ad-supported content. Those visitors will see a different home page from users who sign in as subscribers.
The new "Journal Community" is coming Tuesday as part of the site's first major revision since 2002. There, paying subscribers create personal profile pages with their real names, job details, interests and photo, much as users can at Facebook and the professional-networking site LinkedIn.
Community members will be able to comment on individual stories, create discussion groups on specific topics and ask one another for advice on such topics as starting small businesses or finding a place to take clients during a business trip, say, in Prague.
The Journal's online audience has been growing fast, and nonpaying visitors make up the lion's share. WSJ.com has 4.7 million visitors in July, nearly twice July 2007's total of 2.4 million, according to comScore Inc. Only about 5 percent of the site's users are paying subscribers, the Journal said.
By embracing social-networking tools popular elsewhere, the Journal hopes to draw even more people to its site more often for longer stays. Alan Murray, a deputy managing editor who oversees the site's editorial operations, said the Journal can offer an unmatched community of well-heeled business executives.
"There's no technology here that you can't get at other places," Murray said. "What we have that you can't get anywhere else is the Journal community, the Journal subscriber base."
Although news organizations have started to embrace blogs and tools to share and view content, they have lagged behind companies that originated on the Internet, including Facebook and MySpace, which was bought by the Journal's owner, News Corp., after the social-networking service rocketed in popularity.
Some examples of newspapers jumping into social networking include The Bakersfield Californian, which lets visitors create profiles, blogs and networks of friends, and The New York Times, which is testing TimesPeople for readers to see what their friends are reading and recommending. Journal sister site MarketWatch.com also allows visitors to designate friends and tag stories with keywords for easier discovery.
"But in general, it's still the same old story, where the newspaper industry has gone slowly in this interactivity thing," said Steve Outing, a columnist with Editor and Publisher magazine. "They are making some strides, but overall it's pretty slow going."
Although news sites shouldn't try to duplicate what social networks already do well, Outing said, they risk losing users' attention if they don't get more aggressive about embracing the latest tools.
The Journal is trying to do just that.
Besides adding the networking function, it's looking for ways to merge its community with those elsewhere. And Facebook and MySpace, among others, are developing tools to make that possible.
"We believe that in the future, social networks are going to be an important means of distributing content and of spreading news, and we want to be a part of those networks," Murray said.
WSJ.com hopes to increase the quality of discussions by insisting that users post over their real names — as verified against billing and subscription information. Other social networks that ask for real names don't have good ways to verify them, and news sites that allow pseudonyms have found discussions often degenerate into vicious personal attacks.
Subscribers can search for and contact others, but they won't be able to declare anyone a top friend, as they can on other sites. Nor are the Journal's personal profiles meant to include for party photos, games or music.
The Journal plans to eventually open the social-networking features to nonpaying visitors, though they will need to figure out how to verify identities.
The separate home page for nonpaying visitors will emphasize the free content. Off-limit items will be marked with a small icon of a key. That's partly to minimize user frustration — before visitors had to click first, only to find the item unavailable. More importantly, the icon will show users what they are missing and encourage them to start paying.
The site is being structured to make it easier for search engines to direct traffic to individual stories, and once there, a new tabbed layout will help readers find related video, photos, reader comments and other articles. The new design will also let the Journal try out new ad formats.
The mix of free and for-pay content isn't changing, though the Journal says it is expanding its coverage areas in the coming months and will generally make those articles free.