The WSJ’s Broken Subscriptions System

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp today announced a 57% rise in annual profits, to $5.38 billion. Please, Mr Murdoch, spend a tiny, tiny amount of that money on fixing the Wall Street Journal’s horrendously broken subscriptions system.

I’m spending the summer in the Mitte (central) section of Berlin — the heart of the capital of Europe’s largest economy. You’d think it should be relatively easy to suspend my WSJ subscription in New York, and replace it with a WSJ Europe subscription here. But you’d be wrong.

Suspending a WSJ subscription in the US for longer than 90 days is non-trivial, but doable, with a single phone call. That’s the easy bit. But the US people can’t help you with the European paper: the two editions don’t talk to each other. If you want a subscription to the WSJ Europe, you have to set up a whole new account. Once you’ve done that, your paper eventually starts arriving — a day late, in mid-afternoon, in your mailbox. Stories from the US edition of the WSJ often make it into the European edition the following day, so news which breaks on Monday in the US might get reported in Tuesday’s WSJ, and Wednesday’s WSJ Europe — which then arrives on Thursday in your European mailbox. This is not timely.

When you phone up to find out what’s going on, they say that they do have hand delivery in Berlin, but not, it seems, to Mitte — or at least not to the bit of Mitte where I’m living. OK, well, never mind, I never liked the WSJ Europe that much anyway, I’ll make do with my online access, I am a blogger after all.

Until, one morning, you go to check a news story, and find it blocked:

"Your subscription to the Online Journal is no longer active."

There’s a button you can press to try to resolve this problem, but when you press it, you’re out of luck:

"Due to your subscription type, you are unable to modify your account online. Please call Customer Service at the numbers above."

You call Customer Service, but, of course, Customer Service is in the US, or at least follows US hours, which means that they don’t answer the phone until 1pm European time. In the mean time, so long as you’re logged in to the WSJ system, you can’t read anything on the WSJ site — not even the home page! When you try to access the home page, you just get the standard error message:

"Your subscription does not include access to this service."

Only by logging out of the system entirely can you see the home page. What purpose does this serve? I do understand having two versions of the home page, one for subscribers and one for non-subscribers. But if there are problems with the subscription, at least serve up the non-subscriber version, rather than nothing at all.

Eventually the afternoon rolls around, and you get through the phone tree to a human being at Customer Service. Can the human being reinstate access to the website? Amazingly, no. "The system" won’t allow it. Apparently I’d been cut off automatically (without any kind of warning) after my paper hadn’t been delivered in the US for 90 days; I’d asked about this and been assured that it wouldn’t happen, but it still did. In order for "the system" to be able to reinstate my online access, I would need to talk to the newspaper people — not the online people — in the US, and physically restart delivery to my US address, where I’m not living. Then it could be suspended again, but "the system" would at least allow me to read the newspaper online.

So I talk to a chap who set me up for a day’s worth of newspaper delivery to my US address. My account’s been restarted, I should have online access. But I still don’t, even after an hour. Back to online customer service; apparently they need to reset something at their end, and then I need to log out again and back in again, and — finally — I can access the website! Yay!

Incidentally, the FT is no better: they, too, have entirely separate departments and accounts for newspaper and online subscriptions, and so I need two different logins and passwords for the two different systems. But at least they deliver to Mitte.

The NYT is more advanced: it has one account to cover both newspaper and online, although they haven’t expanded that to include the IHT.

But in a world where newspaper subscriptions are both hugely valuable and falling precipitously, it’s astonishing to me how difficult they are to manage, and how willing companies like Dow Jones are to alienate their most valuable customers — their print subscribers — by summarily cutting off website access with no warning and making it impossible to regain access without multiple international phone calls.

The long-term solution, of course, is for to go entirely free, just as did. But if you are going to set up your website as a premium product, you definitely need to invest in it and make sure it works smoothly. People are often willing to forgive something free and broken. But something expensive and broken is much less forgivable. And if you’re going to set yourself up as a genuinely international newspaper, make your customer support system reflect that, and reflect your internationally-mobile readership.

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