Washington Post joins the ranks of paywall papers today
Never say never when it comes to media experimentation. Despite executives who claimed the Washington Post would under no circumstances go behind a paywall, the exact opposite has come to pass. Today, the Post has begun its rollout of a metered subscription model, following in the footsteps of the New York Times and hundreds of other newspapers across the country.
The Posts’ model will initially only be applied to a random sampling of readers, and it will require a subscription after 20 articles or features have been viewed in a month’s time. For $9.99 a month, readers will be given access to desktop and mobile Web features, while the premium package gives access to all of the Post’s custom apps for $14.99. Readers with home delivery subscriptions will continue to have free online access. Clicking on links from social media sites or search engines, however, will provide free unfettered access. Additionally, students, teachers, government employees and military personnel will continue to be able to access the site for free from work sites.
Paywalls continue to be a hot trend, and the Washington Post isn’t the only paper to go the way of the subscription model this year. The Orange County Register recently put up a hard wall, which means no free content. This sort of model is usually reserved for the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s The Times and Sunday Times in London, as well as the Wall Street Journal, which is considered more of a niche publication. But the Register’s relatively new owners, Eric Spitz and Aaron Kushner, have given it a whirl.
Strictly, the paper is charging one price at $365 for the entire year, or a $1 a day. According to Nieman Journalism Lab, if a reader purchases a subscription for $2.40 for Sunday print, you only get digital access on Sundays. There are incentives of course, one of which is making seven-day subscribers eligible for free Los Angeles Angels tickets and restaurant gift cards. Meanwhile, non-subscribers can try the website for free for the first seven days. Despite the closed paywall model the Register is going with, Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst, doesn’t believe the idea is all bad, he recently wrote: “Their all-in approach is refreshing, and as long as they’re prepared to quickly fix the moving parts that squeak, their model has a chance of success.”
In early May, Politico began testing out a subscription model by unrolling a metered paywall in six states, with the intention of running the experiment for six months to see if it takes. Much like the Boston Globe did in 2011, the San Francisco Chronicle launched a new site in March called SFChronicle.com, which requires readers to subscribe to view premium content such as the paper’s columnists. The old SFGate.com site still exists hosting free content, such as breaking news.
Although the Dallas Morning News implemented its paywall in 2011, the paper recently began to fiddle with the model, moving it from a hard wall to a metered format, Nieman Journalism Lab reported last month. The new subscription model is set to launch later this year.
Meanwhile, the New York Times has touted some success, pulling in more revenue from circulation than advertising last year, partially because of its online model, reported Bloomberg.com. According to the Associated Press, Gannett saw a 53 percent increase in the first quarter of net income, helped by a one-time tax benefit as well as the subscription model.
Despite this, Alan Mutter, media consultant and author of the blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur, wrote in April that recent successes don’t mean much for the future. “The reason to worry about paywalls is that they severely limit the prospects of developing a wider audience for newspapers at a time publishers need – more than ever – to attract readers among the digitally native generations that represent a growing proportion of the adult population.”
Newspaper experts seem divided on the benefits of paywalls, although Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor at Digital First Media, tends to agree with Mutter on key points. “They limit your audience, especially among the young adults on which any business of the future must be based,” he wrote. Doctor, however, wrote back in March that he figured the U.S. paywall program would bring in more than $300 million in 2013.
Paywalls have always been a contentious issue, although perhaps not as hotly debated as several years ago. Today, hundreds of newspapers have adopted subscription models and seem to have had at least some modest success. So perhaps the contrasting views of veteran newspapermen are both right. While it’s true that paywalls can narrow the scope of readership, it does serve as a temporary fix to staunch the bleeding of revenue. Like all experiments, publishers will no doubt continue to tweak new models to best serve their media properties.
–Katrina M. Mendolera
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