The Washington Post is making it official: It will put up a metered paywall sometime this summer, the paper reports.
But the Post is hardly diving in. It will have a very leaky paywall: 20 stories a month before you hit the meter. And this is not what you would call best practices:
Its home-delivery subscribers will continue to have free access to all of The Post’s digital products. And students, teachers, school administrators, government employees and military personnel will have unlimited access to The Post while in their schools and workplaces.
The Post should have increased the price of home delivery and bundled in digital access. Papers who have tried this, including Gannett, have had big success. And excluding government and military workers doesn’t make much sense. That’s a big chunk of the very people most likely to pay for washingtonpost.com. They largely won’t pay to read at home what they get at work for free—which is where most reading is done anyway. If the Post wanted to go this route, why not at least try to sell discounted agency-wide digital subscriptions?
Still, this is something of a landmark for the newspaper industry. The Post has been the most prominent of the anti-paywall US papers, and the last without one, excepting USA Today (all eyes now are on The Guardian). Its resistance spurred unhelpful commentary like Mathew Ingram’s July 2012 “Why the Washington Post will never have a paywall” piece. “Never,” in this case, turned out to be eight months.
That headline was an example of that particularly Webby bit of clickbait hyperbole incentivized by the free model, neatly enough, but the Post and CEO Donald Graham really were in the paywall know-nothing camp at the time. Here’s a Graham quote from a Aspen Institute Q&A last July that Ingram pointed to:
The New York Times or Wall Street Journal, very intelligently, can say we’re going to charge, but we’re not going to charge you if you subscribe to the newspaper, and you can subscribe to the Wall Street Journal here in Aspen, or pretty much anyplace in the country.
The Washington Post circulates in print only around Washington, DC, but way over 90 percent — I think over 95 percent of our Internet audience is outside Washington, DC. We can’t offer you that print or online choice. So, the pay model would work very differently for us.
This was all kinds of wrong. You don’t get WSJ.com free if you subscribe to the print Wall Street Journal anymore than you get FT.com free if you get the pink paper. And The New York Times has more than 640,000 readers who pay online but don’t get the paper (at the time of the Q&A it already had 454,000). Plus there are 674,000 people—not exactly small-time—who buy the Sunday Post on an average week.
At that time, and despite his questioner’s incredulity, Graham was still touting his company’s unethical spam app, Social Reader, whose traffic was already collapsing from Facebook (rightly) reducing its newsfeed frequency.
Unlike on Facebook, Graham & Co. control what happens on washingtonpost.com.
Last May, I wrote a harsh piece on the Post Company’s business leadership and said its anti-paywall stance, combined with its disinvestment in the Post while it blew hundreds of millions of dollars playing shareholder capitalism, meant the company was on a “self-destructive course.”
Sloppy thinking on paywalls unnecessarily delayed the Post from seeing the $25 million idea the Times gift-wrapped for it two years ago: A meter can preserve your Web presence and digital ads while adding an incremental source of revenue and helping slow the decline of your print paper, which is where the vast majority of the money is still.
But I guess you’ve got give the Post some credit: Better late than never. Now, about that dividend…
The Washington Post Co.’s Self-Destructive Course. Dividends, share buybacks, and an anti-paywall stance help bleed the paper dry.
The WaPo Ombudsman’s Faulty Paywall Analysis. The NYT’s meter is saving or adding more than $70 million in revenue a year already.
NYT Paywall to Other Papers: “Copy Me!” There’s no excuse for other publishers not to follow the Times’s model.
Anti-paywall dead-enders: Why worry about evidence when you can argue against straw men?
The Washington Post needs a paywall—now: A strategic error needs to be reversed, stat.
Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.
Tags: digital subscriptions, Donald Graham, future of news, paywalls, Washington Post