WSJ’s Bold Plan to Expand Subscription Revenues

Rupert Murdoch of late has been making the boldest noises of anyone in the newspaper industry on the search for new business models.

Last week, he told investors that News Corp. is going to start charging online readers of its strong papers like The Times of London within the year (here’s an Agence France Presse story on it that quotes me). Now, his one site that does charge, The Wall Street Journal, is planning a new push into charging online.

Robert Thomson, the Journal’s top editor, tells the Financial Times that his paper will begin charging micropayments to non-subscribers this fall, and it will charge for a new type of “premium” subscription, as well.

As to the latter, I’m assuming that means the Journal will move toward a tiered price structure, much like Thomson’s old paper, the FT, has. Currently, the Journal has a one-size-fits-all subscription model that costs anywhere between $100 and $150 a year, depending on if you’re a new subscriber or renewing.

Presumably, the Journal’s Heard on the Street column, which Murdoch and Thomson have poured resources into and expanded in order to make it more like the FT’s Lex column (the WSJ lured away much of the Lex team in the process), would be in a new, more expensive tier of content.

This would make it more like—you guessed it—the FT, which charges $182 a year for its website minus the Lex column. To get Lex (and content on your cell phone), you have to buy a premium subscription, which costs $300 a year.

But it appears the Journal has something even more ambitious in mind: to charge its mostly wealthy readership for niche interests—beats, essentially.

Its premium plan will focus on readers interested in energy, commodities, wealth management and other niches.

This brings to mind a sort of newsletter model, but it could mean premium energy subscribers, say, get access to blogs by the reporters, access to stories before other readers, online chats with reporters, etc.

As for the micropayment aspect of the Journal news, there’s little information about what that will entail, other than this Thomson quote. Isn’t it nice to see a newspaperman stick up for the value of what he produces:

Mr Thomson said the Journal was developing its own system to charge small sums to occasional users who might not pay more than $100 a year for a subscription.

Pricing for individual articles and for premium subscriptions had yet to be decided, he said, but would be “rightfully high.”

The paper has in the last year or so developed a clever hybrid model for its site, encouraging non-subscriber traffic by allowing stories to be read from Digg or Google News but cutting off access for those who want to browse around the site on their own, encouraging them to subscribe. A micropayment initiative would seem to mean the end for that experiment.

Micropayments have been much discussed as a possible solution for newspapers’ revenue woes, but haven’t been successfully implemented. ITunes, of course, has perfected a system where music listeners can buy songs for a buck or so whenever the desire hits.

It bears watching how the Journal plans to pull off a micropayment model on its own. It seems to me that the most likely way for micropayments to succeed would be if several major sites did it at once and cooperated on a payment method through some sort of central clearinghouse. Readers could be logged into that and pay a quarter or so when prompted without having to enter their name, address and credit-card number every time. My iPhone, for instance, has that information stored in its memory, so whenever I want to purchase an app or a song, I enter my password quickly and it goes through.

Readers for sure won’t want to have ten different micropayment systems for ten different content providers. It’s unclear if even that would work. The Journal, going it alone, would seem to have a more difficult task, one that will be closely watched.

Applaud it for taking bold steps to shore up its tattered business model, and let’s hope it finds a way others can follow.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.