Why the WSJ's micro payment plan won't work

Frustrated by plunging advertising and circulation revenue, newspapers are desperate to find new business models. But The Wall Street Journal'splan to launch a "sophisticated micro-payments service" to sell access to individual articles seems poorly thought out.

If the Journal were the only financial news website owned by News Corp. (NWS), then the micropayment model might work. But the sister websites of the Journal range from MarketWatch, geared toward individual investors, to D| All Things Digital, which features what it calls "news, analysis and opinion about the digital revolution." The sites, including Barron's, all have their individual strengths and weaknesses and feed off one another.

What's going to happen if the Journal breaks some big merger and acquisition story? Will people shell out 99 cents or so for an article when a free summary is available on MarketWatch, Bloomberg or CNBC? Is the Journal going to start to seek licenses from these other news outlets?

Robert Thompson, the paper's editor-in-chief, only offered vague details.

"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 WSJ.com subscription," according to the Financial Times, which first reported the plan. "Pricing for individual articles and for premium subscriptions had yet to be decided, he said, but would be 'rightfully high'."

The plan is not going to appeal to people who don't value the Journal enough to subscribe to it. Moreover, this system may be difficult to police. Trade newsletter publishers have battled for years against customers copying their publications without permission. But if some big shot company executive wants a copy of an article in a presentation, the story is going to appear whether the fee has been paid to the publisher or not. The Journal will experience the same problem.

Total average paid circulation at The Wall Street Journal rose 0.6 percent in the latest period to 2.08 million. Electronic editions, as counted by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, rose 8.8 percent to 383,199. Third quarter operating results declined as advertising revenue plunged at the Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co., according to the News Corp. earnings press release.

Give the Journal credit for being one of the few to realize that giving away all of its content was nuts. But the paper's latest business model raises the old question, "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?"

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