Wall Street Journal's Pay-more Paywall demands Too Much

Do you pay Rupert Murdoch 18 bucks a month for a Wall Street Journal iPad subscription? I dare you to confess. Today, during News Corporation’s earnings call, CEO Murdoch claims that the Journal has 64,000 active users on iPad. Presumably one of them is you.

I ask because I see the Journal as having gone too far with its paywall approach. I’m testing iPhone 3GS again, and I downloaded the WSJ app last week. I logged in with my web subscription account, and the Journal let me read for a couple days. Then came the demand for more cash. Not much, just a buck a week. But I already pay for the web subscription, for which the Journal charges about $150 a year. So Murdoch wants another 52 bucks a year for iPhone and about another $215 for iPad, which I also am testing? OK, it’s only $207 a year for iPad if taking advantage of the $3.99-a-week promotion.

What the hell? It’s the same content, just the device is different. What’s the consumer benefit in that? Does Murdoch have some magic formula whereby gullible people who can afford to pay two or more places for the same content should subsidize everyone else reading for free via the Google search backdoor? The Journal’s pay-more paywall doesn’t fit how people use mobile devices or even the personal computer. Consumption is contextual. Whereas, Wall Street Journal has removed the context and replaced it with premium pricing.

Charging for Context
Each device represents a different context for consuming the Journal—or any other content. The iPhone app fills the on-the-go context, where the user is fully mobile and either doesn’t have time or other device for accessing the content. The screen is smaller, and the Journal is highly condensed. But in that context, the app is good enough.

The desktop or mobile PC is more standard context. It’s where the subscriber demands full access to the content, including archives, and expects good presentation. People reading the Journal on a personal computer have higher expectations than consuming the same content on iPhone. Content is the same, only the context for consuming it changes.

Then there is the iPad, which context is tougher to define. For now, I’ll arbitrarily call it the replacement context. Either leisure or consumption context would be appropriate, too. The slate form factor is meant to replace the PC and print media consumption. Optimized news websites look exceptionally good on iPad. Many of the publication apps look even better. Around this context—whatever you want to call it—are even greater user expectations about presentation and overall consumption experience (Apple surely sets expectations about the experience high in its iPad marketing materials). Someone at the Journal must understand the greater expectations, otherwise why price the iPad subscription higher than even the web edition?

I don’t suggest that Wall Street Journal content isn’t valuable enough to pay for. I subscribed in 1996 to the online edition, cancelled for a few weeks earlier this year and then resubscribed when the Journal offered a lower price offer. The content is plenty worth paying for, but how many times? I could understand if iPad, iPhone and web subscribers paid for something different, but they don’t. Only the device and context change.

Ask More? Then Give More
I make issue of the Journal’s pay-more paywall approach because other publishers will have to make the same pricing decisions, particularly those buying into iPad-can-save-old-media folklore. Some publishers will choose to just give it all away, while others will charge something. Those looking to charge should do what Murdoch’s group doesn’t: Consider context and appropriately charge for it.

Tiered pricing makes loads of sense. Perhaps the publisher offers web for free but there is a subscription fee for a mobile device and higher, but reasonable, fee for two devices (like iPad and iPod). Why not? If the reader really wants the content he or she will pay. But publishers should offer these paying subscribers something more—and varied content simply isn’t practical. But presentation is sensible enough. For example, publishers could make audio content, like podcasts, more easily consumed on a smartphone or make content simply accessible by voice search.

Additionally, publishers could offer location-based news and other services. For example, headline about a car bomb being found in Times Square should be prominent when a subscriber located in New York opens the news app on iPad or iPhone. GPS could identify the subscriber’s real-time location.

The point: Subscribers being asked to pay or to pay more should get more. The Journal’s approach of charging a separate fee for each device is simply stupid, and ignores each device’s contextual character. Pay-more paywall is a huge disservice to subscribers. Plain, pure and simple.

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared on Betanews.

Photo Credit: Sean McMenemy

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