Why isn’t The Wall Street Journal free on-line?

Steve Levitt wonders.  My view: in a given WSJ issue, there will be a small number of wonderful bits, and a whole lot most people don’t care about, like the notices of the debentures.  A free web site would make it too easy to cherry-pick the interesting content, strip it down, and reproduce it and circulate it without the ads.  Even if WSJ could enforce a price on the unbundled content, bundling can facilitate price discrimination, especially when the diversity of valuations of bits is high.

The FT, which also has a gated web site, is similar; their best article on a given day is wonderful, but I don’t read most of what they offer.  Many mornings I won’t even open up the second section, who cares about European debentures? 

When your newspaper is more like a "thicket," the best packaged version of that paper is the paper’s website itself and useful unbundling is difficult.  Note that the so-called chaff business notices in the WSJ are in fact intensely interesting to the few people they immediately affect.  That makes it possible to charge for such news, even though it doesn’t contribute to producing a thicket of content for most readers.  We return to the potential dangers of unbundling, and the possibility of picking apart the WSJ until it isn’t a newspaper any more.  An upfront charge makes sure the value is reaped before most of the paper is discarded.


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