Why The Washington Post should (and should not) introduce a paywall

The Washington Post should have a paywall. "The illogic of giving away something online that you charge for elsewhere is now coming home to roost," Dean Starkman writes in the Columbia Journalism Review.

How much could the Post earn? Unknown. The Post’s daily circulation (470,000-ish) is a bit more than half that of the [New York] Times, so that might provide a guide. But in truth, the Post has hamstrung itself in other ways, namely by deciding it’s mostly a local paper. Let’s say it would make only a quarter of what the Times can generate. That’s still a lot of reporters, still helping to preserve the paper’s main value-creator, the newsroom.

The Washington Post shouldn't have a paywall. Digital subscription progress at The New York Times doesn't mean success elsewhere, Mathew Ingram writes in GigaOM.

If what Starkman envisions as the future of the Post is a much smaller entity that subsists primarily on reader subscriptions, then that’s fine, but that’s not what he’s saying. He seems to be suggesting that a paywall can somehow stop the bleeding (i.e. the declines in revenue) and remove the need for cuts to payroll, and maintain the Post‘s presence as an “important institution” in national journalism. But unless it achieves unheard of success — beyond even that of the New York Times — there is no way a paywall is going to accomplish all of those things.

The Washington Post is looking past paywalls. Starkman "provides copious evidence that free isn’t a way to pay 500 people, but no evidence that a paywall does," Sarah Lacy writes in PandoDaily. The Post, she writes,

was the first publication to wildly embrace Facebook’s platform, and while its Social Reader has had ups and downs, it was looking very promising for a time. The point is not whether each experiment works. It’s that the Post is embracing new media, not fighting it. Knowing Graham’s approach, I expect more of this as more platforms proliferate. The argument “Innovation hasn’t worked yet, so ditch it,” doesn’t exactly get how innovation works.

Every newspaper needs a paywall. David Brauchli -- brother of outgoing Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli and an executive at European paywall company Piano Media -- writes about what he calls an "ethical collapse" at Arizona State University, where a couple of professors discussed ways to get around paywalls in an email chain.

When did even the people who depend on the future viability of the industry for the sustenance of their careers and the well-being of their families decide that stealing the news was an acceptable action? Who gave them that idea in the first place?

When I interviewed David Brauchli earlier this year for a story about Piano Media, I asked if he and Marcus talked about paywalls. “All the time,” he said.

The "bottled water" argument doesn't apply to newspapers. "Television stations are in their seventh decade of giving away news, and they are doing better than newspapers," Digital First Media macher Steve Buttry writes.

That’s because TV stations and newspapers were never in the content business. They were in the advertising business. When newspapers were thriving, we were essentially giving our content away, charging less than the cost of production and distribution. The advertising business has been disrupted and we need to develop new revenue streams to support news.

Related: Hearst is evaluating paywalls in other cities after launching one in Houston (News & Tech) | 9 reasons newspapers are suddenly asking print subscribers to pay for full Web access

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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