What the WSJ's iPad Price Says About the iPad

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The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that it will set monthly iPad subscriptions as $17.99. This is what we in the biz know as cojones. I looked up WSJ subscriptions for Web and print today. It turns out that getting the WSJ on the iPad is more expensive than a subscription to WSJ.com; or WSJ the paper; or WSJ.com and WSJ the paper combined.

Let's compare the weekly cost of reading the WSJ in various sizes and screens:

On an iPad: $4.15/week
On paper and Web: $3.50
On paper: $2.99
On Web only: $1.99
On iPhone: $1.99

Two more data points: Esquire Magazine's first iPad issue will charge $2 less than its printed version; Men's Health Magazine will ask for the same price ($4.99).

What's going on here? A couple things that I see. First, the iPad is an upscale purchase and mags and papers are pricing high because they think the market can take it. Second, publishers are kicking themselves for giving away free content online and erecting paywalls defensively to capture more subscriber money while advertising waits to recover. This is The Empire Strikes Back: Media Edition.

The most honest reaction to this news -- and the most logical conclusion to these awfully vague polls about how consumers would use iPad-like devices that they don't actually own -- is that nobody knows what exactly to do with the iPad because it's an entirely new machine that nobody has used. Consumers don't know what they're going to use the iPad for because they still don't know how it works, or how it types, or how easy it will be to transition between programs (like the iPhone the iPad has no multitasking). Publishers don't know what to do with the iPad because they don't know if consumers will prefer to read magazines on a glossy Apple screen, or on their phone, or on the old ink and paper.

One of the under-reported aspects of the iPad craze is that the rush to build iPad specific editions of magazines and websites furthers the splintering of the Internet into content pockets that make it cumbersome to reach wider audiences with one technology. As I wrote here, in a year, to reach the universe of new mobile browsers, you can't assume that your audience is using only a laptop to access the same version of your content. You'll need a website and a Kindle App and an iPhone/iPad app and another app for another device that has a distinct audience and requires a specific and exclusive template.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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