The WaPo Paywall Cometh

It’s hardly a big surprise, but it’s still with a sense of foreboding that I read this signal-of-future-intentions from the Washington Post:

The Washington Post will probably start charging online readers for access to newspaper articles in the middle of next year, a person familiar with the plans said.

This lede sounds pretty weird coming from Washington Post reporter Steven Mufson; “a person familiar with the plans” is probably one of his bosses. But whatever:

Long reluctant to charge for online content, the newspaper is close to a decision to introduce digital subscriptions and charge online readers once they surpass a certain number of articles or multimedia features a month, the person said. Access to the home page and section fronts would not be limited.

The model — known as a metered paywall — would be similar to that used by the New York Times, which started charging for online content in March 2011 and now has nearly 600,000 digital subscribers. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times have similar models.

Ah, yes, the big Times experiment. I didn’t know if had officially been declared a great success, but then I generally avoid stories about the evolution–or more often devolution–of the news industry like they were Signs of the Apocalypse.

The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates offers an acute observation on this development:

I read the Post online enough to say that I would pay for this. Plus I’ve basically come around to the idea that content-providers will have to charge something. But putting yourself on the market cuts both ways, in that it rather quickly reveals what, precisely, consumers will pay for and what they won’t. The Times found that opinions were as numerous as middle fingers, and thus couldn’t really monetize it’s columnists. It’s reporting turned out to be another story.

The problem with the Post is that the paper has been so decimated that you wonder whether they still have a product they can sell. I wonder if the Post basically got it backwards–they tried to save by cutting, but in cutting damaged the product (and the brand), and now the Post is trying to get people pay a much less substantial product. It seems it would have been smarter to charge when you had something you knew you could charge for.

But there is the rub–no one knew. This wasn’t a Washington Post problem. It was an industry problem. We’re only slowly adopting to the idea of paying for information. They’ll likely be some casualties due to the tardiness.

That’s true. And I suspect the sound of approaching hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen are being heard here and there at WaPo.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.