The Washington Post announced yesterday that it was finally joining the ranks of newspapers with an online paywall, but not everyone at the paper agrees with the decision.
Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth said in a statement that “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 added that the paper is going to ask readers to pay for a digital package, just as they have done with the print edition.
Weymouth has been lobbying for a paywall for the last few years as falling ad revenues, combined with readers fleeing to the Internet for news, have resulted in large losses at the paper. But she had been rebuffed by former executive editor Marcus Brauchli and Post Chairman Donald Graham.
Brauchli has since been replaced by Marty Baron, formerly of the Boston Globe and a paywall proponent, leaving Graham as the lone voice against charging readers for online access.
Graham told attendees at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference in December that the Post was looking at paywalls, but said they hadn’t adopted one because they couldn’t find one that adds to profits.
Paywalls have helped stem circulation declines—something the Post is all too familiar with—but there is little or no evidence that they actually increase newspaper profits.
One of Graham’s major concerns is that a paywall will drive away some of the Post’s digital audience, which in turn will cost the paper “a very significant amount of digital advertising,” since advertisers balk at paying for a shrinking audience, much like what has happened with the print edition.
But Graham shouldn’t worry too much about that right now. The Post’s paywall has so many exceptions—home-delivery subscribers will have free access, while students, teachers, school administrators and government employees will have unlimited access at their schools and workplaces—that online readership should be little affected.
If Weymouth was trying to solve the Post’s fiscal woes with this move, she has failed miserably. By exempting almost all of the website’s current readers, the paywall figures to generate little revenue once it is erected.