The Washington Post’s announcement yesterday that the paper will erect a paywall that charges readers who access more than 20 pieces of content per month was probably inevitable. As much as papers and other publications have tried to monetize online viewers, the infrastructure of those publications were built on the revenues from a model that could extract more money from readers: you’re always going to be able to get more money from audiences when, without paying it, they can’t access the information or data they want at all.
But even as publications that were built on subscriber fees collectively move in the direction of paywalls, the ways they design those paywalls say a great deal about what those publications perceive as their strengths and weaknesses. The Post, the paper explained, “will exempt large parts of its audience from having to pay the fees. Its home-delivery subscribers will have free access to all of The Post’s digital products, and students, teachers, school administrators, government employees and military personnel will have unlimited access to the Web site while in their schools and workplaces. Access to The Post’s home page, section front pages and classified ads will not be limited.”
Government employees and military personnel are some of the Post’s bread and butter—other national papers don’t cover issues like federal compensation or government openings and closings the same way the Post does, so the Post’s competitors on those issues are trade publications like my former employer, Government Executive. If the Post was confident that its coverage in those areas was vital to its readers, and that it would beat its competitors, it might make sense for them to keep government employees outside of the paywall rather than giving them a passthrough, because those readers would be a reliable source of revenue. But giving them a loophole suggests that the Post needs their eyes but doesn’t trust this core consumer audience to pay for the content—it’s a sign of weakness where the publication should be strong.
It also remains to be seen, I think, how the Post will handle its online-first properties, like Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog. While paywalls are an attempt to recreate the subscription model for the internet age, things like Wonkblog or Max Fisher’s blog lived online first, and trying to move them into a new business model might split up their readership. Paywalling them would be a retreat from the Post’s ventures into digital development, a sign that the company is continuing to have trouble running a mixed strategy. The New York Times’ move to a paywall demonstrated that, even if the paper has had to continue buyouts and reduced ambitions, its core readership remains relatively strong and committed. The Post’s paywall comes with lower expectations in the form of its loopholes than the Times’ has. But even with that curve, I’ll be curious to see what the paper’s final grade turns out to be.