According to an article by The Week highlighting a 14-year timeline of how the news media has implemented paywalls strategies, the Wall Street Journal was “one of the first national newspapers to install a paywall…just one year after launching the [web]site.” Notably, in 1998, one year afree implementing its paywall, the newspaper had exceeded 200,000 online subscribers. In 2007, the Wall Street Journal gained its millionth online subscriber. There years later in 2010, the newspaper still boasted more than 1 million online subscribers. By 2016, the now legendary pioneer in paywall strategy plans to reach 3 million subscribers.
In a 2011 article by the Columbia Journalism Review, when the Wall Street Journal decided to charge for its online edition in 1996, it did so without much thought or contemplation. It was a novel idea to charge people for news on the internet. The newspaper has always charged its print subscribers extra for access to its online content. This access also includes digital archives and tools that are not possible with a print edition. However, its biggest differientiating characteristic from most other online news media is its specialization in financial content and advice. Its readership tends to be more affluent and educated than the readership of other general news outlets.
Now, more than 20 years later, the newspaper is as much of a leader in online subscribers as ever and has been the paywall strategy model that other news outlets have measured up against, trying to duplicate its success. In a 2016 Poynter article, Benjamin Mullins discussing the newspaper’s plan to reach 3 million subscribers. The plan includes regularly “tweaking” strategies in response to audience feedback, and, according to Kristen Heitmann, then General Manager of WSJ Digital, being more open to “testing, learning and adapting.”
With the future in mind, the Wall Street Journal has implemented a new strategy to establish a lasting connection with readers. By providing various “touch points” through social media, the newspaper believes that if more people sample the content on a trial-type basis, then the newspaper will reach to those who wouldn’t have visited the site directly or have been exposed to what the Wall Street Journal offers in content.
With a mind for creativity and innovation and an openness for trial and error, it is likely the Wall Street Journal will be able to continue its online success while staying true to its brand. Flexibility and a willingness to change gears is what will prove to be the key in sustainability for news media in the digital age.