Reinventing the Newsroom

A WSJ.com Vet’s Take on Paying for News

Posted in Creating Context, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on February 26, 2009

Update: Newsday says it will charge for online news. I’ll be very interested to hear the particulars.

When I started at The Wall Street Journal Online, it was a single, free section known as the Money and Investing Update. (As this was 1995, it was also battleship gray.) In April of the next year, after a lot of long nights, our staff rolled out a full WSJ.com, complete with subscription fees. Our traffic immediately went pretty much to zero, and we had to wait and see if it would rebound. It was exhilarating. It was also terrifying. Because nobody knew if it would work.

It did, and I learned that defending subscriptions was an unwelcome but obligatory part of working at WSJ.com. (You want a business model? I wish I could have had a nickel for every time some Web entrepreneur approached me at a New York City mixer in the late 1990s and accused me of being part of a plot to ruin the Internet.)

Sure, I boned up on the boilerplate for why WSJ.com was different — “we offer time-sensitive financial news that’s critical for decision-makers, and people will pay for that.” And I understood that for a lot of people a WSJ.com subscription was either a job perk or could be expensed, unlike a subscription to a mainstream paper. But over the years, I came to wonder if something a lot simpler wasn’t at work, too: Why do we charge a subscription fee? Because our content has value. Why does our content have value? Because we charge a subscription fee.

I know it’s not that simple. But I think it is a factor — a simple feedback loop in subscribers’ minds. Paying for content not only reinforced the idea that content was valuable, but also made subscribers self-identify more strongly as Journal readers, strengthening the community we were trying to build.

During my WSJ.com career, I came to reluctantly accept that we seemed destined to stand alone, particularly after the New York Times shuttered its Times Select experiment. If only, I’d think. If only the Times and the Washington Post and some of our other leading papers had charged subscription fees back in the late 1990s. If they had done that, I’d think to myself, the landscape for online newspapers might be very different, because we wouldn’t have taught readers that news should be free, or reinforced the idea that our stories were commodities whose origin was of no particular importance. You can disagree with Alan Mutter’s ideas about how to charge for content, as many have in recent weeks, but I find it hard to argue with the idea that giving away our valuable content is our industry’s original sin.

None of this is the same as deciding what’s to be done about it now, of course. Micropayments strike me as a non-starter, largely because I can’t think of a micropayments system that wouldn’t be a royal pain for me as a user. (This is a perspective we in the news industry have a bad habit of ignoring.) Yet — and maybe it’s just that those WSJ years have altered my DNA — I’m not sure WSJ.com’s model should be so quickly dismissed as an apple among oranges.

For one thing, descriptions of that model don’t always completely capture it. For years, it’s true, the Journal was a garden surrounded by very steep walls. This gave us a certain measure of security during online advertising’s periodic troughs, but it was frustrating that our stories tended not to become part of the larger conversation online. But the Journal hasn’t been like that for quite a while. It’s actually pretty open now — a reader can get quite a lot of stuff without ever hitting a subscription wall. And this is particularly true of stories reached through Google News, which is the essence of being part of that larger conversation. (Here’s my old colleague Gordon Crovitz’s take, referencing  Walter Isaacson’s cri de coeur.)

When I first heard we were opening up for Google, I was skeptical — I’d become an ardent defender of the subscription model, and saw that as an attempt to erode it. (As always, when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail.) When I objected, someone on the business side explained that “we want to have our cake and eat it too.”

I thought that awfully breezy at the time, but I became a convert. Opening up the Journal partway — by sharing stories with bloggers (an initiative that built on an experiment during the 2004 election season), allowing articles to be passed around by subscribers, and offering full articles through Google News — let the Journal be part of the conversation, and ensured a steady stream of potential subscribers would be exposed to our articles, even if most of those readers turned out to be fly-bys.

Sure, that was enough for some folks. But not for everybody: The free articles were fragmentary views of the Journal. By paying, you got those stories in their natural context, and you didn’t worry that you’d wind up jiggling the knob of one of the locked doors that remained. Sure, you could assemble a free Journal link by link. But goodness what a lot of bother. Once you came to value Journal content, 40 cents a business day didn’t seem like so much. (I no longer work at Dow Jones and so am not privy to the numbers, but when I was there I never saw any indication that opening up the Journal partway had made much of a dent in subscriptions.)

I wonder if a variant of that path is worth exploring: Get the parts for free, pay for the whole.

At WSJ.com I had some frustrating conversations with developers who struggled with the idea that a story’s importance couldn’t always be measured absolutely, because it often depended greatly on its context — whether that context was how old the story was or what page of the site we were discussing. That context was and is extremely valuable, and perhaps it could be monetized in a way individual stories can’t be — and maybe even shouldn’t be, given the importance of being part of the Web’s larger link culture. Such an arrangement would preserve the value of links, while communicating that a news organization’s overall judgment and view of the world also has value.

6 Responses

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  1. Megan said, on February 26, 2009 at 10:15 am

    I always assumed that a large part of WSJ.com’s success was due to the fact that corporations were paying for many subscriptions vs. individual people. Not true?

  2. reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 26, 2009 at 10:21 am

    Definitely true, as noted above. I just don’t think that’s all of it.

  3. Michael said, on February 26, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    An interesting analysis, and I agree with it for the most part, but the newspaper industry is starting to look a lot like the recording industry in the way it has generally shot itself in the foot by not embracing the Web early enough (or at least embracing it entirely the wrong way.)

  4. […] for content means you can’t be part of the link economy — see the hole I tried to make here — though I’m compelled to note that the Journal’s parts-for-free, pay-for-whole […]

  5. […] for content, and I don’t believe it’s impossible or necessarily inadvisable to do so. I’ve written before that the Online Journal’s hybrid model should be better understood and more seriously […]

  6. […] no ideological disagreement with the idea of newspapers charging for subscriptions — in fact, I’ve urged that more papers look at the hybrid model of WSJ.com, which takes in subscription fees without […]


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