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Pexton, The Post and the paywall

Pexton, The Post and the paywall

Is The Washington Post having an identity crisis?

It seems that ever since 6 August, when Patrick B. Pexton published his piece mooting the idea of a more populist standpoint for The Post, American journalists have been considering not only the type of paper The Post should be, but also contemplate the what political coverage means to the American audience and who actually constitutes said audience.

Pexton's piece attempts to analyse the range of news organisations operating in Washington and the choices they offer to the American people in terms of journalistic style, use of media and - crucially - cost.

In fact, Pexton adopts a very strong stance against the pay wall initiatives taken by the likes of The New York Times, which he feels marks them out as "the fee-based national newspaper for the liberal, cultured elite". This contrasts strongly with those who have embraced the idea of the so-called 'leaky pay-wall', which Poynter has praised for allowing people to choose to pay relying on "motivations such as convenience, duty or appreciation" which "are more compelling than coercion".

So, would a more populist approach for The Post be a success?

The Columbia Journalism Review has responded to the article, asserting that Pexton's vision of creating non-partisan political coverage for the masses, whilst it is "a noble task", relies on the assumption that "a mass audience for the sort of political journalism he wants to see exists--and implicitly, that this audience can somehow be converted to revenues that will support the journalism." Clearly Greg Marx of The CJR has his doubts as to whether this is feasible.

But wait - doesn't America already have an audience for this type of thing?

Perhaps, particularly when you consider the new organization CNN as a case in point. So why is Marx so skeptical of The Post being able to bring in revenues when CNN can financially support this type of political coverage?

Jim Walton, President of CNN Worldwide, attested earlier this year in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter the "distribution [fee] business is big for us". So, while the subscriptions that Americans pay for their cable T.V. might not go directly into CNN's pocket, the fees from the middleman do. Clearly this is not a model that The Washington Post can emulate.

Pexton asserts that the future of The Washington Post "lies not with the rich; it lies with the citizenry." One thing the long-standing success of CNN does show is that Americans are willing to pay their cable fee partly in order receive non-partisan political coverage. The New York Times pay-wall seems to be another indication that the public is willing to pay for news, despite being able to dodge fees.

So, perhaps the wider question that Pexton raises is: what does it mean for a publication to have a paywall?

Does subscription mean that news is likely to be aimed at a specific audience and, therefore, more likely to be partisan? Does a pay-wall make a publication elitist? Or is digital subscription as permissible as charging a couple of dollars now and then for a paper copy?

Sources: The Columbia Journalism Review , The Hollywood Reporter , Poynter, The Washington Post ,



Katherine Travers


2011-08-17 16:45

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