Sunday, January 6, 2008

Ending a 25-year business relationship

After subscribing to the daily Wall Street Journal for the first time in 1983 — and buying individual copies since 1980 — this month I’ve decided to let it lapse. (My wife will be grateful for less newsprint being left lying around the house).

I first subscribed to the WSJ as a way to follow the computer industry and business in general. In its day, it was a unique source of information about American business. But in the past five years, it has published fewer smaller pages, more soft news features (lifestyle, entertainment, personal consumption) and less real news. The slant of its news pages (not its editorial page) has come to resemble more of a general newspaper (like the NYT or LAT) than a business publication like Barron’s, Forbes, or Investor’s Business Daily.

I had planned on renewing at $99/year but since I lost the #@*(# renewal coupon, they wanted to charge me $298. Instead, I cancelled the dead tree edition but paid $79 to renew (at least for now) my subscription to But this is the first and last year for online-only: if Rupert Murdoch doesn’t carry out his vow to eliminate subscription fees and follow the NYT into all-free news, then I’ll let the subscription lapse and rely on, CNET and various specialty sites.

Of course, newspapers have been losing readers for decades, and dead tree publications have been losing readers to their online editions for a decade, cannibalizing their own paid customers with free online ones. Trade journals have already stopped killing trees, and six months ago Business Week speculated that San Francisco would be the first city to have its main daily newspaper go all-electronic.

But the WSJ was different, in that it was one of the few major newspapers to gain subscribers over the past decade. My own experience suggests that Rupert Murdoch faces a tricky path if he decides to abandon online subscriptions (and presumably print ones someday, too).

I was very loyal and habituated to the WSJ; both the act of subscribing and the cost created real switching costs. If it goes free, it will be just another free site, and my loyalty to will be not much more than to the 167 different RSS feeds in my RSS reader. If it doesn’t go free, then at $80 year I’m history. So I’m not sure what the profit-maximizing strategy is.

Interestingly, the WSJ’s only real English-language competitor, the Financial Times, has a range of prices from $0 to $400/year. The FT is also between a rock and a hard place. It’s hard to see why I’d take the main ($109/year) online subscription given all the alternatives out there, while at the same time the FT is cannibalizing paid subscribers by giving out 30 free articles a month.

Graphic credit: Crotchety Old Bastard web log.

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