Washington Post paywall: Go for it

Our photographer Michael Williamson on assignment in Mingo Junction, Ohio. Photo by Joel Achenbach
Our photographer Michael Williamson on assignment in Mingo Junction, Ohio. Photo by Joel Achenbach

Here are a few thoughts on the paywall, offered with the proviso that I speak only for the Achencubicle and this is all way above my pay grade. The paywall is the right move. It does make me a little nervous, though, because the establishment of a paywall would seem to imply that a writer should start producing material that someone would be willing, in theory, to pay for. That’s against my blogging principles. If I start producing blog copy that’s – what’s the word? – monetizable? – non-worthless??? – then I’ll be breaking with a very long tradition. There will be a sense of selling out. Like I’m working for The Man. I treasure my independence, which has been established over the years through an astonishing ability to be utterly irrelevant.

True literary freedom is when you have no readers at all.

I wish you could all see how good I am at back-deleting a sentence. Gobbling it up from right to left. It’s like going back in time.

Anyway: So, a number of us have wondered, since the 1990s, how it could possibly make sense to give away all of our content for free on the Web. This has been a long-running conversation. (We started the website in 1996; I started writing Web-only material in August 1999; this blog has been sputtering along since January 2005 and until someone informs me otherwise I intend to claim that it is America’s oldest newspaper blog). As everyone knows, we’re inexorably migrating to digital platforms as we consume our news, but revenues from digital advertising has not made up for the decline in print advertising, particularly Classifieds. And no one realized in 1996 that Google – which didn’t exist — was going to eat everyone’s lunch.

The digital paywall will help the print newspaper. The price of a subscription has gone up steadily in tandem with the decline of the Classified ad revenue stream. In the old days, a copy of the newspaper could be had for two bits. Now it’s $1.25 a copy. Home delivery costs hundreds of dollars a year. And yet it was all free at the same time? On your smart phone, your laptop, on your desktop computer at work? One side of the business can’t be undermining the other indefinitely. Newspapers sign up new subscribers all the time, but the key is to keep them, and the paywall will help with subscriber retention.

And just in case there’s any confusion: If you have a subscription, you don’t have to pay for digital access. You just have to sign up online.

Anyone can still read 20 stories a month for free. And anyone with a dot.gov, dot.edu, dot.mil address will still have unlimited access from their work or school computers. Key fact: Links from blogs or Twitter or Facebook or other social media will go right past the paywall without a pause and won’t count against the 20-story monthly limit. Type a few words into Google and you can usually get a link to the story or column you’re looking for. (Follow me on Twitter and click on the link when I post it.)

But never mind all the workarounds: In general, I don’t see a problem in asking people to pay for the things they read, consume, use, employ, etc.

It may seem like ESPN is free, but it’s not – the cable company pays ESPN and we all pay the cable company. If you don’t think the product is worth paying for, then that’s fine. This is how the market works. Everyone has free will in this process, but no one has to work for free.

Let me sign off by directing you to something our digital wizards recently produced: A story with video about Bryce Harper’s swing — “A Swing of Beauty.” It’s priceless.

 

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · June 4, 2013