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The Washington Post's paywall dilemma

The Washington Post's paywall dilemma

‘The newspaper industry is like the British army retreating on Dunkirk. As before Wapping, it asks only how many boats might there be for survivors, two titles or perhaps three? Erecting paywalls may delay the retreat, but I sense that as long as online news media are selling just information and comment, they will be vulnerable to Bailey's web attrition.’

Simon Jenkins’ take on the phenomenon of the newspaper paywall, still relatively new in 2009, reads well three years later. It also illustrates how far from resolution the industry remains on this question. Rarely does a day pass online without the vexed issue of newspaper paywalls loping sullenly into view, with arguments and statistics marshalled, profit projections scrutinized and business plans rubbished by those with settled views on the issue. Often this stems from ideology: Mathew Ingram calls the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, ‘evangelical’ in his advocation of his philosophy of ‘open journalism’. Yet the trend, particularly in the USA, is undeniably one-way: according to News & Tech’s comprehensive list, more than 350 North American newspapers have now launched some type of paywall across their sites. Indeed, the launch just last week of The Houston Chronicle’s premium website marks the first Hearst Corporation newspaper to place content behind a paywall and may well signal similar digital initiatives at other Hearst sites.

Prominent in today’s news, moreover, is the minor spat between the aforementioned Mathew Ingram and the Columbia Journalism Review, with the latter arguing vehemently for the new editor of The Washington Post to adopt a paywall (‘every day this simple, ameliorative step is not taken is a day wasted’) and Ingram equally adamant in his opposition (‘Sandbags don’t solve a rising water problem, just as paywalls won’t get rid of a declining revenue problem’). Sadly unequivocal, however, is the scale of the WaPo’s losses: $60 million-plus in the first three quarters of the year, and on track for a fifth straight loss year. Though many may look to the successful New York Times model for inspiration, it is undeniable that, for the long-term at least, the jury is still out.


Frederick Alliott


2012-11-27 18:50

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