I subscribe to and pay for a bunch of digital news sites, like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. But it turns out a lot of people in media have a workaround that let them get media for free.

Last week, it was revealed that hundreds of journalists (maybe more) were using a single, pilfered login and password to read The Wall Street Journal without paying for it--and that they've been doing so for the last five years or more. Their illicit access was finally shut down on Friday.

Technically, sharing a login like this is a federal crime. Prosecutions are rare, because most people who share a login do it with family and friends, but it's ironic to think that so many media people, whose jobs depend on advertisers and subscribers, used a workaround to get media content without paying for it.

Some of them even lamented the login's demise on Twitter, before news of it spread beyond the media bubble, and they deleted their tweets. One might well ask what other paid digital services people are getting illegally, and for free--while the "little people" have to pay for them.


Here's the background. In 2012, somebody at NBC Universal set up a WSJ.com account and shared the login info across NBC's communications department. The account still lists the names and email addresses of "two current and former NBC Universal employees," according to Buzzfeed.

Ultimately, the login spread beyond the company, to the point that it became "one of the best/worst kept secrets in media circles," according to Buzzfeed.

Combine that with the fact that the credentials were literally "username: media" and "password: media," and it seems clear that those who used it understood that this wasn't just a small scale, "friend of a friend" who had shared a login as a favor. While the Journal didn't comment, it's an intriguing thought experiment to imagine how many people were actually using this login.

At least 1,051 users

In an effort to answer that question, Buzzfeed ran a poll asking people to cop to having used the login. As of this writing, 1,051 people have voted "yes," meaning they did in fact use it. Separately, a journalist whose tweet Buzzfeed linked to talked the "400,000 people" who marked its passing, although that's almost certainly hyperbole.

As far as the value of all of this, a monthly subscription goes for $32.99. So, even if the only people who used the login actually admitted it to Buzzfeed, we'd be talking about nearly a half a million dollars in lost subscription revenue over five years.

Buzzfeed included tweets from several journalists at prominent media companies mourning the free login's demise, including Fusion, The Intercept, The Daily Beast and Marketplace. Most of those tweets have apparently been deleted now, but you can check out the Buzzfeed article to see them.

The paywall paradox

Since the start of the digital era, Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal have stood out among media companies by putting a paywall around much of their content. Other major media like The New York Times and The Washington Post came to the paywall game a bit later.

The kind of lost revenue we're talking about here is likely a drop in the bucket to Dow Jones, of course. But as mentioned above, sharing a password like this is technically a federal crime.

Normally, nobody would ever be prosecuted for sharing a login. In fact the CEOs of both HBO GO and Netflix--and let's face it, login-sharing with those companies is practically an American pastime--say they're pretty much going to turn a blind eye to password-sharing among family and friends.

Is this case different, since the scale seems to be a lot bigger? That's hard to say for sure. But from the point of view of those of us little people who actually pay for media, it's more about the principle.

If you're getting something for free, as so many journalists apparently were, it becomes easy to think that the poor customers who actually pay for it are a bunch of fools. Even if there are never any legal repercussions, that's the kind of subtle elitism that makes the people who actually consume the news a little less sympathetic to the people who report it. Great job, guys.