Late in January, Rupert Murdoch put an end to speculation that he would set free the Wall Street Journal's subscription-only Web site.
While he planned to "expand" the site's free offerings, "the really special things will still be a subscription service, and, sorry to tell you, probably more expensive," the News Corp. head told a crowd in Davos, Switzerland. The pay wall, in other words, would stay up.
But Murdoch, quel surprise, wasn't telling the whole truth: The Wall Street Journal's Web site already is free. Every article that the paper publishes is available to anyone, for no money at all.
By "every article," I mean all of them -- from the front, inside and back of the paper, from the lengthiest investigative features to the merest news nuggets. And by "free," I mean for not a single dime, and certainly not the site's $79 annual fee.
Sure, there's a trick to get at all these pay articles. But in many cases, the method is drop-dead simple; in some cases, it requires the Firefox browser and add-on software. But in all cases, it's completely legal, and in fact it's hard to see how the Journal could object to it at all.
The heart of this story is the power of search engines like Google and link aggregators like Digg, which drive torrents of Web traffic to newspaper sites. Newspapers want search engines to point at their stories; indeed, last year the New York Times dropped its subscription plan specifically to attract Web surfers at Google, Yahoo, Digg and others.
The Wall Street Journal also wants traffic from search and link sites, but instead of doing away with its pay gate, it has set up a technical method to let people from these sites come in for free.
The system works like this: If you click on a subscriber-only WSJ link from an ordinary Web site -- say, a link that I post here, or a link from within the Journal's own site -- you'll be sent to a limited version of the article, and you'll be asked to log in to read the whole thing.
But if you click on a link to that same article in Google News, you'll be sent to the full story for free. This is true, also, of WSJ links on Digg, and probably a few other big referral sites, too.
Understanding this practice gives us two ways to get full Journal articles.
The easy way to get WSJ articles for free (but you don't get all stories):
If you're not a Journal subscriber and would like to read an article that's locked away, here's the first, easiest thing to try: Search for the story's headline in Google News.
On Friday, for example, the Journal published four articles on its front page. Two were available for all, while the following two were offered to subscribers only: "$100 Billion Power Deal Moves Closer in Europe" and "(New Math) x (SEC Rules) + Proxy=Confusion."
Both those locked headlines are in Google News. A search there for "$100 Billion Power Deal Moves Closer in Europe" brings up a Journal link -- click on it, and you get the whole story. Similarly, search for "(New Math) x (SEC Rules) + Proxy=Confusion" and you'll get that piece, too.
Many Journal articles can be accessed this way. But some cannot -- when you search for them in Google News, you don't find a link.
So what to do? If you use Firefox and are comfortable with installing add-ons -- and really, there's nothing difficult about it -- read on for the advanced method, which gives you access to the full WSJ site for free.
The slightly harder way (but you do get all the Journal's stories):
Remember that the Journal is set up to disarm its pay gate if it thinks you're coming from Google News or Digg. In order to get free access, then, you've got to convince the Journal that you've clicked on a link on one of those sites. How to do that?
When you've installed that app, you'll see a new toolbar in Firefox that looks like this:
Now follow these steps:
- Go to WSJ.com.
- In the refspoof toolbar's "spoof:" field, type "digg.com."
- Also in the refspoof toolbar, click the R icon, and select "static referrer."
- That's it. Click around the site; the WSJ thinks each click is coming from Digg. The WSJ is now yours for free!
A note on ethics:
You might be wondering, Hey, I'd like to do this, but is it ... "wrong"?
It is not. The Wall Street Journal wants people to come to its site for free -- if it didn't, it wouldn't give readers of Digg and Google News full access to its articles.
I'll grant you that setting your browser to spoof Digg is slightly deceptive. But it's a minor fib, on the order of, say, handing a cashier an expired coupon. The Journal adds Digg buttons to all of its stories, encouraging you to open its articles to everyone (including you) for free; by pretending that you're coming from Digg, you're simply taking advantage of that implicit offer.
The Journal no longer really has a pay wall. It's a pay curtain, useless and flimsy, and you're committing no transgression in dancing around it.