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Paying for a Product that's Taken Away


I’ve been a subscriber to the Wall Street Journal’s online edition ever since the news organization started charging for it. The price has risen again and again, but I’ve found the value worth the cost.

The site included Barron’s, the weekly financial newspaper that has been a sister publication under Dow Jones parentage. I didn’t read the Barron’s stories all that avidly, but I did periodically look at them and enjoyed what I saw.

Until a few weeks ago, that is — when Barron’s suddenly disappeared behind a pay-wall of its own. Suddenly, something I’d been paying for was missing.

Understand what happened here. It’s not as if I reached the end of my subscription period (mine ends in June or July) and was told that the new subscription would no longer include Barron’s. This was different: Something I’d been paying for suddenly disappeared in the middle of the subscription period.

I was sure there had to be some mistake. I mean, would the Wall Street Journal, the watchdog of capitalism, do such a thing?

On Jan. 27, I sent an e-mail to the WSJ online people asking for an explanation. On Feb. 7, I received this response:

We can confirm that as of January 8, 2006, Barron’s Online became a standalone publication rather continuing as a feature included within The Wall Street Journal Online.

As with any publication, our editorial content and features change from time to time, and we regularly add and, in cases such as this one, remove, content and features. We have added substantial value to both the Online Journal and Barron’s Online sites over the past few years, through ongoing additions and improvements to online exclusive content, tools, data and archives.

In the past year, Barron’s Online has added many more online exclusive features, including The Inside Scoop, Charting the Market Today and Hulbert on Markets. With this re-launch, the site is also adding brand-new stock rating, screening and search tools.

In the months ahead we plan to add more new features, columns and tools to Barron’s Online to make it even more valuable. As part of this process, subscribers must choose whether to continue their access to Barron’s Online and we are giving them a substantial discount to the regular price of Barron’s Online. Due to the timing of this in conjunction with the re-launch, and the limited-time nature of the special offer, this may not match the timing of subscribers’ renewal dates.

We hope you will explore all the valuable features that Barron’s Online has to offer. If you have questions or would like more information, please contact our Customer Service Department at 1-800-369-2834 (or 609-514-0870) from 7am – 12 midnight ET, Monday-Friday.

In other words, pay again for what I’ve been paying for, and too bad if I don’t like it.

Dow Jones’ position is essentially this: I was getting Barron’s for free, a bonus on top of what I was paying for. Now that they’ve decided to charge, the bonus is gone.

As I responded to the company’s e-mail, this is the rough equivalent of having my local newspaper decide to stop delivering the Sunday edition unless I forked over more money — before the current subscription had run out — and replacing it with a local shopper-paper full of nothing but advertisements.

I don’t see anything in the Subscriber Agreement that permits Dow Jones to do this. Nor, I concede, do I see anything that doesn’t permit such a stunt.

There was a simple way — an ethical way — to handle the decision to start charging separately for Barron’s. The Journal and Dow Jones could have told subscribers about the change when they were about to renew their subscriptions. Instead, the company chose to take away what people believed they’d paid for. What would it have cost to do the right thing?

There will be a cost for doing the wrong thing. Like at least a few other folks who’ve been burned, I’m planning to cancel my subscription.

No news organization celebrates capitalism, nor tries so hard to keep it honest, as well as the Wall Street Journal. Its management should be ashamed at pulling a stunt like this.

UPDATE: The Journal has sent me a new e-mail, almost identical to the last one, with this additional paragraph:

We value your business and want you to be satisfied with your subscription, so as a courtesy, we would be happy to offer you continued access to both The Wall Street Journal Online and Barron’s Online until your next renewal date. However, upon your next renewal, you will be required to pay for a subscription to each product that you wish to continue to access.

This is absolutely fine with me — and precisely what I believed should have been done in the first place. I hope other unhappy subscribers pursue the same deal.

(Note: This posting has nothing to do with the Journal’s story last week about bloggers and disclosures, in which the paper unfairly implied that several colleagues and friends had acted unethically. I’d sent my subscription query nearly two weeks earlier. But I figure if I don’t mention it here, someone will incorrectly conclude that this posting has some connection. Again: The issues are entirely separate, and I still respect the Journal enormously as a journalism institution despite these disagreements.)

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