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Will WaPo’s Paywall Help or Hinder the Struggling Paper?

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The logo for the Washington Post is displayed outside of its offices in Washington, DC. (Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The logo for the Washington Post is displayed outside of its offices in Washington, DC. (Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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LANHAM, Md. (CBSDC) — A lot has changed since Woodward and Bernstein’s heydays in The Washington Post newsroom.

When they were assigned to report on a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972, it would be nearly a quarter century before WashingtonPost.com was born.

To get the latest on the Watergate scandal, readers had to wait for the paper to land on their porch or pick up a copy at a nearby newsstand, if they weren’t a subscriber. No breaking Tweets with the most up-to-date info from Deep Throat, no iPhone app to idly check on the train ride into work.

But since 1996, content on WashingtonPost.com has been free for anyone with an internet connection. The latest news has been just a click of the refresh icon away for 17 years. On Wednesday, however, The Post announced that it will begin phasing in a paywall June 12.

The Columbia Journalism review wrote in 2009 that daily newspaper ad revenue crashed in 2008, plunging 16.7 percent. It’s only gotten worse since then, and publications across the country have responded in the form of layoffs, ceasing print publication operations, ceasing publication altogether and, on the less extreme side, implementing paywalls. The Post joins dozens of other U.S. papers that have made the move toward paid online subscriptions in the last decade.

Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth says online readers will be able to view 20 pieces of content per month before being asked to subscribe. Digital subscriptions will cost $9.99 per month for regular and mobile web access, $14.99 per month for access to all of The Post‘s apps. Home subscribers will still have complimentary digital access.

So, will this move help the struggling publication, or hurt it?

The Washington Post Company released its first 2013 quarter earnings in early May, reporting that revenue from the newspaper publishing division was down 4 percent from the same time period in 2012. Daily and Sunday circulation declined 7.2 and 7.7 percent, respectively, compared to the first quarter of 2012.

Revenue generated by online publishing, on the other hand, increased by 8 percent. So why make readers pay to go online? Well, because the newspaper publishing division still reported an overall operating loss of $34.5 million in the first quarter of the year.

Gannett, the parent company of USA Today and many other newspapers and television stations across the country, announced its plans to implement paywalls in 2012. As of October, Gannett has paywalls on more than 70 of its newspapers. Also in October, the company announced that it had snapped a streak of four straight quarters with revenue decreases. It cited its paywalls as a key factor in the uptick.

The Wall Street Journal says digital subscription models could give all newspapers a chance at revival, because stock prices tend to start going up at the same time the paywalls do. Still, limiting the number of visitors to websites could hurt newspapers’ ability to secure online advertising.

No one can predict what the future holds for The Washington Post. But no matter what,  it will always have Watergate.

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