The WSJ's Odd Mobile Application Strategy

As Megan noted yesterday, the Wall Street Journal is one of the few newspapers that has gained print subscribers this year. That might be surprising, given that it's also one of the few newspapers that also charges for online content. But its latest strategy in demanding a subscription fee for its mobile news reader has me scratching my head. The full details are about as bizarre as the pricing scheme that Derek wrote about back in June by the Daily News of Rhode Island. I get that the Journal likes to get paid for content, but I don't understand why it's charging subscribers even more to utilize the mobile app. And the details are even stranger.

If you read the WSJ on your iPhone or Blackberry, then you might have noticed this change yesterday. If you're like me, then you were probably shocked and dismayed to see little key symbols next to most articles in the WSJ mobile reader, indicating that you couldn't view the articles without subscribing. I went ahead and called the WSJ to learn how the costs break down. First, here's the non-mobile breakdown: Subscription Only: $1.99/week
Print Subscription Only: $2.29/week and Print Subscriptions: $2.69/week

That all kind of makes sense. Online is the cheapest, but if you get them both, you pay little more than the print subscription. So far so good. But here's where things get silly:

Mobile Reader Only: $1.99/week and Mobile Reader: $3.49/week, Print and Mobile Reader: $2.69/week

HUH? Let's start with the cost of the mobile reader subscription. It costs as much as the online subscription, but the content is harder to access and almost certainly not as robust. Even if you can get all of the same content and blogs through the reader, which I doubt, I just can't see mobile access being worth as much as full online access.

But that's really a minor concern next to the next few observations. First, why are online subscribers forced to pay an additional $1.49 per week to access the same content, just on a different device? Again, I understand the desire to have subscribers pay for content. But the tiny additional cost for creating and maintaining a mobile application hardly justifies the charging subscribers a whopping $1.49 per week more if they already have access. This seems completely excessive. I understand paying more money for the combo package of online and print access, but electric subscriptions should be format agnostic.

Then, there's the really, really strange part. Who, in their right mind, would purchase just and the mobile reader? You pay 80 cents per week less if you also get print. This means that, in a sense, the Journal is paying readers 80 cents per week to take a print subscription.

This might just be pure crazy. It costs money to print and deliver those paper copies, but the Journal is paying readers to receive them under this scenario. I can, however, think of one theory for why the Journal has chosen this strategy. What if it collects more than 80 cents per week of advertising profit per print subscriber? If that's the case, then it's actually making money by paying subscribers to take the print edition.

Yet, if that's the motivation, then the WSJ's logic still breaks down when the picture doesn't include the mobile reader. There, you're paying $1.99/week for just online and $2.29/week for just print. So if they're really making so much more with print advertising, then why not charge less for the print edition than online without even considering mobile?

I suspect their pricing strategy has some problems, because it's obviously inconsistent. So you might see some fee revisions in the days to come. For now, however, I won't be reading the Journal on my iPhone.