The Washington Post is the latest US paper that is reportedly planning an online paywall in the upcoming year. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Washington-based daily will introduce a metered payment model in the summer of 2013 or later. This comes as the paper tackles a steep decline in its core business of print advertising, the Journal notes.
A Washington Post article adds that “Access to the home page and section fronts would not be limited,” and that home subscribers to the print edition would have full access to the paper’s website and other digital products.
The Daily Beast is also considering a metered model, Bloomberg reported yesterday, while its sister publication, Newsweek, prepares to close its print edition and switch to a paid electronic publication. E.W. Scripps announced two weeks ago that it would roll out paid digital content in all of its newspaper markets in 2013, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds reported. And Gannett has just completed its roll out of paywalls at papers across the country, according to News & Tech.
Meanwhile, circulation revenues at US newspapers have “at last” started to stabilize, reports the Economist, even as ad revenues continue to fall. The Economist attributes this to the increase in the number of paywalls, noting that the number of papers with operating some kind of paid digital content model has more than doubled this year, and more than a quarter of newspapers now have one. (This would seem to contradict WSJ’s statement that ‘most’ US newspapers now have one. Either way, a list of more than 300 North American papers with paid online content is available on News & Tech.)
The Economist suggests that technological improvements in payment technology are one motivation for papers to start charging, and the increasing number of mobile and tablet devices on offer is another. The latter make paid digital subscriptions more attractive, and easier to sell, as readers have more of an impression that they are buying an actual product.
The relative success of The New York Times is cited in The Washington Post article as providing “some encouragement.” The Gray Lady now has almost 600,000 digital subscribers and has made up for advertising losses with this new revenue stream.
However, as C. W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky point out in Columbia’s Tow Center report, ‘Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present,' The New York Times is unique among American newspapers and it would be unwise for any other paper to assume that following in its footsteps would be easy. And even the Times is currently looking for volunteers to accept buyouts.
Unless there is a major shift in the value digital advertising, it will never supply the same kind of revenue that print advertising has, and, as the Economist notes, this means that it is crucial that newspapers become less dependent on ad revenue. US publications have traditionally seen particularly high proportions of their revenue coming from advertising: 80% or more.
Making readers pay more for content is a good start, but will it prove good enough? As the Tow report also notes, news organisations have always been subsidized in some way: selling journalism has never on its own comprised a business model. Digital distribution is undoubtedly cheaper than print distribution so means that circulation revenue can go further towards the cost of sustaining the newsroom, but further innovation in terms of bringing in revenue will be needed for many news organisations to survive.