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The Wall Street Journal online, one of the few remaining news websites that's charging for access, plans to introduce a micro-payments scheme this autumn.

Non-subscribers will be charged to view individual articles, according to a report Sunday — somewhat amusingly by the WSJ's overseas rival, The Financial Times and not the paper itself.

Robert Thomson, WSJ's managing editor, told the Financial Times a "sophisticated micro-payments service" will be instated to bill occasional users unwilling to pay the site's $100+ per year subscription rate. Pricing hasn't been decided, but Thomson told the FT ominously that the sum would be "rightfully high."

The paper also discussed selling "premium subscriptions" to niche business audiences that will bundle together different News Corp. services like access to Dow Jones newswire stories.

WSJ's new pondering of alternative payment models comes as the newspaper industry struggles to stay afloat amidst rapidly deflating subscriber numbers and advertising revenues. Micro-payments could certainly relieve the latter, but the wrong price risks the former. Charge too little, and those already ponying up a yearly fee would switch to the micropayment bargain, generating less revenue for the publication. Charge too much, and it's not going to attract any new audiences when news is easy and free elsewhere.

Still, the online publication is a rare instance of a subscription model working in the first place. Even the venerable New York Times had to abandon its TimesSelect online subscription regime in 2007 after predicting advertising revenue would generate more cash than subscription fees. But now that advertisers are pulling back, it's a scramble to see what business model can fly in today's economy. ®

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