The Washington Post has revealed it will start charging frequent users for content starting this summer.
Though the exact costs have not been finalized, the paywall will affect users who look at more than 20 articles or multimedia features and require them to pay a monthly fee for content. Unless you are a home-delivery subscriber, in which you’ll have open access to content or if you are a student, teacher, government employee, school administrator or military personnel, in which case you will have unlimited access to the site while at schools and workplaces. Also, there will be no limits on classified ads or access to the Post’s home page. While these changes appear modest, paywalls pose a threat and conflict in news economics. Paywalls are a part of a slow growing, but lasting trend that probably hurt the lower tier of news sites. It won't, however, be the demise of the classic, strong, and unique.
In 2007, when the New York Times stopped their two-year run charging for access to most of their digital content, the Internet model seemed to defeat the paywall, but the Times may have placed too many restrictions too quickly. When they limited all content for non-subscribers the Times found that more readers were “coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to NYTimes.com. These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the paywall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.”
What the Times did not realize in the mid-2000s was how effective search engines would be in directing “unique visitors,” approximately 13 million a month in 2006/7, to their content. In this time before wide usage of smart phones or tablets, by eliminating the fees on digital articles, the Times was able to increase their audience and utilize digital advertising.
If this worked for the Times in 2007, then what is going on with the Washington Post today? Post publisher Katharine Weymouth explains, “news consumers are savvy; they understand the high cost of a top-quality news gathering operation and the importance of maintaining the kind of in-depth reporting for which the Post is known.”
She also suggests that readers of the Post will continue to support the digital prices, as they have the print. A news site has to really have something special to put up a paywall and Washington Post is unique and admirable. Digital advertising makes up about a fifth of their total advertising, as the Post has remained a local paper, though 90 percent of its readers are non-local. As this is their business model, it makes sense that they begin charging for usage. The fact that “Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post Co., has been among those in the journalism industry most concerned about possible adverse effects of charging for online content” AND he has agreed to the model, which shows that the paywall is a necessity and an important part of the growing quality news trend.
While smaller websites and blogs exist to form personal communities, sites like the NYTimes.com and WashingtonPost.com offer a voice and a quality that news readers trust. The Post’s moderate price change is annoying, but it is like when HuluPlus was created. Hulu still provided free content and HuluPlus simply had more, at a reasonable cost. Or how device users still require subscriptions for the Times. In the right context, charging for access makes sense and readers/viewers will still follow.