Dear newspapers: I will pay for your content, once

Asking subscribers to pay for the same content twice will not work.

I am a willing subscriber to The Wall Street Journal's online edition. It's $100 a year, which is a lot for online content, especially considering that you can generally find a way to get for free. But I'm a professional writer, and times are hard for all of us. I consider it a professional courtesy to pay, even handsomely, for excellent work. What I won't do is pay for twice. Unfortunately, that's what the WSJ wants me to do:

I recently downloaded the iPhone app for the WSJ, and discovered that getting access to the stories that I'm paying for already on the Web was going to cost me another $52 a year. And that's the discounted rate for existing subscribers. iPhone and BlackBerry app access is $78 a year if you don't already have either a Web or print subscription. It's only if you subscribe to both the Web and print editions of the WSJ that you get iPhone app access for "free."

No, I don't think so. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

This is madness. I'm paying for online access to the stories. Why on earth should the publication charge me for it twice, or differently, just because I want to view that content, sometimes, on another connected device?

A Dow Jones spokesperson replied, "Each platform or device provides a different experience, and our model reflects that."

By this logic, I'm surprised the WSJ doesn't try to charge me an additional fee for reading stories on a second computer. At least a WSJ Web password can be used on any browser, including the browser on the iPhone.

But what if I want to read on yet another device, like an e-book? Actually, and sadly, Amazon's Kindle content delivery system seems to take a play from the Journal's book. If you're already a subscriber to the WSJ in any form, don't ask about the Kindle version of it. You don't want to know. The Kindle system is so divorced from its content producers that people who subscribe to electronic editions of one service, such as The New York Times' Electronic Edition at $175 a year, must pay again to get that same content delivered to their e-readers. In the case of the Times, that's another $167 a year. For the same stories, except stripped of color.

Granted, for most papers so far there are no corresponding non-Kindle payment plans. You only have to pay for USA Today if you want it on your Kindle ($144 a year), but it's still completely free over the Web; even the iPhone app gives you the content for nothing, save the crossword, which is a paid app.

Here's a better idea for Amazon, the Journal, and the Times: Set up a way for users to subscribe to a content service, and let them get that content electronically wherever they want. Kindle, iPhone, Web, whatever. It should be a right: if you have to pay for content, it should follow you around like a devoted puppy. (To be fair, let's let newspapers charge extra for actually delivering newspapers, since printing and distribution does incur non-trivial additional expenses.)

This idea is already working its way through the television industry. It's called TV Everywhere. In a nutshell, it says that if you pay for certain shows or networks via your cable bill, you should be able to watch what you're paying for online as well, even when you're not on the cable company's network.

Another emerging idea that augurs for this is the concept of the "digital locker." We can hope that Apple's purchase of Lala.com will mean that the music you purchase from iTunes, as well as the tunes you upload from CDs you own, will be stored by Apple for you, to be streamed when you want, to wherever you are, for as long as Apple stays in business.

That's the way to do it. Paying for content that's restricted to a platform is an analog anachronism that should die in the digital age. It's not fair nor sustainable, since delivery methods and platforms shift all the time. It is fair for content providers to charge for their work, but they should sell the content itself, not the media that holds it or the connections that transmit it.

 

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