The Wall Street Journal online edition is the poster child for the argument in favor of paid subscriptions for news Web sites. WSJ.com has 400,000 paid online subscribers (hundreds of thousands more get the site along with their print subscription), giving other publishers hope that some way, somehow, someday, they can charge for online content.
Well, I ditched my WSJ.com subscription last month, after almost 15 years (I was a charter subscriber, in fact). Why? At $155 a year, it was just too expensive—even as a business-expense writeoff, which btw is a major reason why WSJ.com is an outlier in the online-subscription argument.
Insanely, I could only reduce the cost of the annual subscription if I agreed to receive the printed Journal, as well. (Yes, you read that right.) Then I'd just pay $99 a year. The wacky logic of this continues to escape me, and I just don't want that newsprint piling up in the recycling bin, untouched. So I canceled.
And I haven't missed a thing.
This is the dark secret, and the Achilles heel, of the Journal's—and Rupert Murdoch's—paid-content business model aspirations. It turns out that most of the key content of the supposedly for-pay Journal is available online for, um, free. And it's not hard to find. No, Google isn't stealing it, nor is some aggregator. It's all sitting right there on the WSJ.com site, if you know where to find it. Hiding in plain sight (or site), as it were.
This isn't rocket science. Basically, I just had to change a couple of my longstanding Journal URLs. It turns out that about half the paper—especially the excellent "soft" features in Personal Journal and Weekend Journal, among the WSJ's best content—is readily available on the WSJ site, unprotected by the paywall, for some reason. (You'd think that's the kind of unique stuff they'd want to charge for.) The best of the Journal's technology coverage, including Walt Mossberg's computer column, is free on Mossberg's affiliated site, AllThingsD.
My most personalized use of WSJ.com, the stock portfolio (and related news coverage of specific companies) is on the "free" side of the WSJ.com paywall, though it's easily replaceable elsewhere. Even the legendary Wall Street Journal a-heds—the quirky, eminently readable front-page features that have been sadly diminished under Murdoch—are on the free side of the WSJ.com paywall.
And just about everything else—even breaking stories—can be found...well, I won't give it away. But it involves using Google in a quite obvious way. OK, I've lost access to the WSJ archives—but I rarely used that feature anyway.
In sum, life without a paid subscription to the Wall Street Journal turns out to be not much different than it was when Dow Jones was dinging my credit card for ever larger dollar amounts every year. And I've now got a spare $155 to blow on iPad apps (though not the Journal's!).
All of this, of course, assumes that the financial and business coverage that the Journal provides is so unique that anyone should be paying for it. Sometimes, that's true—when the Journal is at its best on business stories, there's little better. But huge amounts of what the Journal covers—the daily flotsam and jetsam of corporate news, numbers, reports, etc., is available all over the Web, on sites like Yahoo Finance, or from CNBC's excellent—and free—iPhone app.
Besides, the Journal feels less and less like the Journal anymore, anyway. Increasingly, as Murdoch pursues his war of attrition with The New York Times, the Journal is devoting more and more attention and space to non-business national and international stories that are widely available elsewhere. Problem is, there's really nothing that unique about the Journal's coverage of the oil spill, or the Kagan nomination, or the British election (or New York City). There are countless free sources to replace or substitute for them.
This, of course, is the deepest flaw in any online-subscription theory: that equivalent coverage is available for free, a click or two away. Even the Journal can't enforce the kind of exclusivity that would make it worth paying for—it's too easy to look elsewhere. And by pursuing his Times-killing strategy—which is nonetheless fascinating in its own right—Murdoch is watering down the product that I previously was happy to pay for.
So I'm no longer a subscriber to WSJ.com. But I'm still a reader. That will make the advertisers happy, I suppose. But somehow it shouldn't be so easy.
One last thing: When I called Dow Jones customer service to cancel my WSJ.com subscription, the response was, simply, "OK, thanks." HUH? You're losing a paying customer, people. At minimum you should ask why—and try to convince me to stay on. But nope, there was zero objection. Nada. Nothing. Same thing happened when I canceled my print subscription to The Washington Post a few years back (and I've encountered other folks who've had the same experience canceling The Post and other papers).
Memo to newspapers: When losing customers is a critical problem, you might want to try a little harder to keep them from simply leaving, OK? You shouldn't let them go without a fight—or at least a discount offer. Then again, I'd assumed that I'd allow myself to be lured back to WSJ.com by an inevitable (I think) discount pitch after a few months as a non-subscriber. Now, after seeing what I can get without paying for it, I'm not so sure.