Is My Journal Free or Not?

Funny how marketing programs work. Left hand, let me introduce you to the right.

I just got a renewal notice from The Wall Street Journal telling me to act now and save. It's not like the company ought to be trying to wrangle a few more dollars out of subscribers. I mean, the keys to the Dow Jones kingdom have already been formally handed over to Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. (NYSE: NWS  ) team, and he's made no secret of his desire to have the online version of the Journal become subscription-free.

Yet my renewal notice told me that if I renew now I get both the print edition and the online version for the special price of $298, a savings of 47% off regular rates. By doing so, I'm "protected against any and all price increases."

What the renewal notice doesn't discuss is what protection I have against any and all price decreases. If I renew now and Murdoch follows through on his plan to eliminate the online subscription, will he be sending me a check for the difference? Will my print subscription be extended? Will this end up being a mess?

Murdoch believes this is a case of less is more. While initially bringing in less money to News Corp., he will ultimately be creating more eyeballs that advertisers will pay for. Yet it's not certain the strategy will pay off. Wall Street Journal subscribers are seen as a particularly select group. But if they are mixed with the great unwashed masses, will advertisers really be willing to pay to reach them?

The Wall Street Journal was seen as one of the few successful online paid subscription models to a news organization. The move by Murdoch seeks to make inroads into turf already occupied by New York Times (NYSE: NYT  ) , Pearson's (NYSE: PSO  ) Financial Times, and even Gannett's (NYSE: GCI  ) USA Today.

The New York Times is being set free for all content, while the Financial Times will offer casual readers up to 30 free articles per month. I haven't heard of any plans from Gannett yet to cancel its online subscription price.

Unlike some who have suggested that when the online edition goes free they'll cancel their print subscription, I plan on keeping my subscription. Casual perusing of an online newspaper isn't as easy -- or serendipitous -- as holding one in your hands, even if your fingers don't get ink smudges.

While I appreciate the paper trying to protect me against "any and all" price hikes, I think that when I do renew it will just be for the print version. That way, when Murdoch does make good on his promise, I need not trouble him to refund me the difference. It would just be nice if the marketing department was on the same page as the rest of the paper.

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