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The Wall Street Journal has (almost) never been free to read online.When the full website — then called the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition — officially debuted online 20 years ago today, it was free for a few months.“It was always the case that the Journal was going to charge for its online edition,” Dave Pettit, the Journal’s editor for specialized news products and events, told me.“We launched in April and in August they launched the subscription.The trial period was free — the earlier prototype was also free — but there was always the expectation that business news content, in particular Journal content, would be behind a subscriber paywall.” Pettit started off at the Journal as the Money & Investing editor, spearheading a basic markets news site in 1995, and he’s been with the Journal in various positions ever since.The paper had begun assembling staff to work towards a more substantial website by 1995, and Pettit recalled that though in the early days they “were working on a shoestring,” there was always support for the online edition from top management.“We spent that first year or so just figuring out systems of how things were going to work — coming up with a workflow, the scope of the coverage, and the design of that initial site.

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“We were fortunate that from the beginning, we got support from the top.

One manifestation of that was that they made room for us right there next to the national news desk of the Journal — which was pretty cool if you’re talking 1995, 1996.” “With the additional information and features of the Interactive Edition, we’re confident readers will pay the modest subscription price we’re charging,” Neil Budde, founding editor of the “Interactive Edition” who had developed prior to the basic 1995 website an early prototype service that relied on users dialing in to fetch information, said in a Journal story announcing the launch of the full website.

(Budde is now vice president/executive editor at The Courier-Journal in Louisville.) The Journal’s foray into paid online content made a splash — here’s The New York Times on the launch of “Wall Street Journal Bets Internet Readers Will Pay a Fee” — and the pressure leading up to the official launch was immense.

Rich Jaroslovsky, the first president of the Online News Association and now a tech columnist for the Observer and vice president of Smart News Inc., recalled the prelaunch breakdown in a piece for The Observer.

A routine server maintenance procedure ended up taking the entire system down, without indication of when it would be back online: “Now, with the eyes of the media and tech worlds on us, we were paralyzed.

Much of the work we had done in advance for the launch had been wiped out, and we sat for agonizing hours with nothing to do.” As of this past December, had about 828,000 digital subscribers, with an additional 12,000 people who have access through other means (such as through their company, or a hotel paying for guests to have access).

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