WaPo caves to paywall after preaching benefits of openness

The Washington Post is resigning as one of last major US newspapers without a paywall, the newspaper announced Monday. This decision follows years of avid declarations from WaPo execs that the newspaper will remain open to maximize reach and digital ad revenue.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 19, 2013

The paywall, set to take effect this summer, will allow each visitor 20 complementary page views per month, excluding the home page and classifieds section. The newspaper hopes to maintain most of its 17 million monthly unique visitors.

Such a metered model has proven successful for other newspapers including The New York Times, which Columbia Journalism Review said generates $100 million through digital subscriptions.

In addition to not counting clicks from search engines and social media, the paywall will allow unlimited access from schools, government and military workplaces, notable as more than 20 percent of District of Columbia residents are federal employees, according to Forbes. But Don Graham, chairman and CEO of The Washington Post Co., has previously noted that locals provide less than 10 percent of the newspaper’s online traffic. This statistic made him previously wary of charging for online access, as he predicted that bundling digital subscriptions with print wouldn’t be as successful for The Post as for other papers.

Prices have not been set, but the newspaper polled subscribers last month asking whether they’d be willing to pay $24.95 per month for seven-day home delivery and unlimited web access, $14.95 for unlimited web access without a print subscription, or $7.95 for a Sunday print subscription bundled with web access, according to The Washington Business Journal. Current print subscribers will have unlimited digital access under the new system.

“News consumers are savvy; they understand the high cost of a top quality newsgathering operation and the importance of maintaining the kind of in-depth reporting for which The Post is known,” Publisher Katharine Weymouth said. “Our digital package is a valuable one and we are going to ask our readers to pay for it and help support our newsgathering as they have done for many years with the print edition.”

The Post’s decision surprised many. Mathew Ingram of GigaOm predicted in July that WaPo would “never” cave to a paywall, emphasizing that the newspaper has always been a new media pioneer, with its Facebook social reader app and partnership with Trove news recommendation service.

Many argue that paywalls won’t end the industry’s problem of rapidly sinking revenue; they just put a band-aid on a gaping wound. The New York Times, seen as a paywall role model, is barely breaking even with digital revenue and falling print revenue, Ingram noted.

“This is like advising someone teetering on bankruptcy to fill out a form for another credit card, rather than cut their monthly expenses,” Sarah Lacy of PandoDaily wrote. “It might buy you some time, but that’s about it. Anyone with a long term view, has to be looking beyond paywalls.”

But others have been campaigning for The Post to join the paywall movement for months. Dean Starkman of Columbia Journalism Review reprimanded the newspaper: “Every day [without a paywall] … is a day wasted,” he wrote in November, adding that WaPo “has become the American newspaper industry’s poster child for the folly of clinging to a free digital strategy.”

Former WaPo Managing Editor Raju Narisetti wrote back in June that “the golden age of target digital advertising” is on the horizon, so it’d be silly to “trade that larger opportunity for the much smaller and unreliable pursuit of consumer dollars.” But Starkman noted that while digital ad revenue may increase, it will never be enough by itself to compensate for falling print subscriptions. He pointed to the fact that The Post’s online ad revenue has decreased by double digits for all but one of the past six years.

“Digital ads are fine, but alone they are not enough when there is a honkingly obvious supplementary source of revenue available,” Starkman wrote.

Now, with a quarter of all U.S. newspapers setting prices for their content, eyes turn across the pond to The Guardian — still free online, with a more than significant US presence.

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