Why We Subscribe

Many journalism outlets with subscription businesses let users read at least one free article per day so that they still rank high in search results, driving traffic to their site and attracting advertising revenue.

However, after blocking visitors to their site via Google from reading articles for free in February, the Wall Street Journal saw a fourfold increase in the rate of visitors buying subscriptions. I don’t think everyone else will be following in the Journal’s footsteps though, as traffic from Google dropped 44 percent as a result.

Executives at the Journal are arguing that Google’s algorithms, which prioritize free content, are unjustly penalizing them for attracting more subscribers. It seems highly hypocritical to me that the Wall Street Journal is criticizing Google for its method of prioritizing search results when they prioritize their own readers – visitors from Facebook and other social media outlets are still able to read full articles for free. Google provides a service, directing traffic to their site, if the Wall Street Journal is unhappy with the rules of that service they can always pay to have their content appear higher in the search results.

I don’t think that this strategy will be successful in the long term. The subscribers that the Journal has added through this experiment have likely joined through resentment and not excitement – that isn’t sustainable. People continually subscribe to things for one of two reasons – they either need something or they feel something. No one needs to subscribe to a journalism outlet so they must do so because they feel, or want to feel, a part of it. Forcing readers to subscribe to view content may work at first but it won’t keep them coming back, only content and a sense of community that cannot be found anywhere else will.

No one subscribes to the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times or the Washington Post – an organization is just an abstraction – they subscribe to the people that give them meaning. That’s why the existing subscription model doesn’t make much sense to me. Why do I have to subscribe to the whole Wall Street Journal? Sure, that can be an option but what if I just want to subscribe to a single column or blog? I don’t want to pay for the ability to access content that I will never consume. I am willing to bet that if the Wall Street Journal got creative with their business model they would attract more subscribers than they have by eliminating free content.