Why Wall Street Journal Online is Still Subscriber-Only

Freakonomics author Steve Levitt wonders why the Wall Street Journal, virtually alone among the world’s major dailies, continues to keep most of its online content behind a subscription wall, guaranteeing virtually no one will see it.

Is it that there is something different about their readership that makes free online a bad idea for the WSJ, but a good idea for others? I doubt it. My guess is that either it is a good idea to give free access or it isn’t. Either the WSJ is making a mistake or other newspapers that do give stuff away are making a mistake.

Tyler Cowen argues that the WSJ (and Financial Times) are simply different animals:

[I]n a given WSJ issue, there will be a small number of wonderful bits, and a whole lot most people don’t care about, like the notices of the debentures. A free web site would make it too easy to cherry-pick the interesting content, strip it down, and reproduce it and circulate it without the ads.

So, translating from the economist-ese, it’s because the WSJ mostly sucks but the few bits of it that don’t suck are really, really valuable to a handful of people whereas other papers have lots of mildly interesting content but nothing so unique that many people would pay for it? That sounds about right to me.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Media,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. spencer says:

    It is not that the WSJ has a few bits that are very valuable to a few people. It has many different bits of information with each of them valuable to a different set of a few people.

  2. Rob says:

    I’m not sure why you’d be so scornful of the WSJ. I’ve always found the editorial page to be wonderfully insightful.

    And, it’s worth noting that the online version of the WSJ makes more money than its print version. Which is also interesting as the WSJ would seem to be the only traditional newspaper publication that is turning a profit from its online version.

    Maybe there’s something that can be learned from the WSJ…

  3. James Joyner says:

    Rob: Mostly, it was a snarky summation of Cowen’s assessment. I would note, though, that OpinionJournal is freely available online.

  4. Tano says:

    Actually, I think the summary is missing the point. All of the major newspapers are wrestling with the problem of how to come up with the best business model for the online world. No one really has much confidence as to what the proper approach is. So we see experimentation.

    Some papers, like the NYT, are trying to make it on advertisements, and selling the opinion pages and archive access. Others, like WaPo seem to thihnk that ads alone will work.

    The WSJ is a very good newspaper (on the content side), and has decided to charge for that. The editorials are given away for free because that is pretty much what they are worth.

    It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out. THe danger for the WSJ is that the editorials really do drag down the reputation of the paper and yet the editorials are all that are out there in the free sphere. Those who are aware of the value of the content pages may well find it worth paying for, but the scope for growth may be limited.

    The Times, of course, gives away the content – to their great benefit in terms of public influence, but the oped people seem to have been really taken out of a lot of the public discouse.

  5. Ryan Edwards says:

    The Wall Street Journal gives you free access if you have a thing called Netpass from: http://www.congoo.com

    All premium publishers are working to give these users free access….why…I dont know but i’ll take it.

  6. true dough says:

    Congoo doesn’t seem to be working for me to access WSJ articles anymore. I have access by other means, but Congoo was much more convenient. I hope this is a temporary glitch (I only started having the problem today).