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.
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.
Home subscribers to the print edition would have unfettered access to The Post’s Web site and other digital products.
The news was reported Thursday on the Wall Street Journal’s Web site, which also said that The Post would raise the price of the paper sold in newsstands. That price has increased from 25 cents to $1 over the past several years.
Post company executives have long believed that the newspaper needed to build a larger core audience of people who are frequent users of the Web site and therefore the most likely to subscribe. And they hoped that a large online audience would bring in more online advertising.
But online advertising stalled late last year and early this year. Moreover, the success of the New York Times, which added online subscribers without significant losses of casual Web readers or print subscribers, provided some encouragement.
In addition, Warren Buffett, a former longtime Post director and a confidant of Post chief executive Donald E. Graham, has bought most of Media General’s local newspapers through his conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway, and said that he would introduce paywalls throughout the chain.
“Anyone who focuses on the newspaper business should be focusing on one company: Berkshire Hathaway,” Graham said earlier this week at a media conference hosted by UBS. “Warren has bought more than 80 papers . . . and he’s been waving his arms saying, ‘I’m not done.’ ” (Last month, Buffett announced that he would close one of the Media General papers he bought, the Manassas News & Messenger, at the end of the year.)
He added: “Warren’s strategy is: put in a strict paywall and focus on local, local, local stuff.” Graham said that The Post would keep its local focus, including political coverage, as it covers Washington “as a city and as the capital of the United States.”
Graham has long been considered skeptical about the wisdom of introducing a paywall, according to company managers and executives.
When asked Monday at the conference about the possibility of introducing a paywall, Graham said: “We’re going to continue to study every aspect” of such a move. He praised the New York Times for “what seems to be a very intelligent paywall.” But he added that The Post’s strength was its local audience and ads, and said he was concerned about losing national audience and advertising by charging online readers.
Asked by one investor analyst whether he thought the paper could improve profits by increasing revenue or cutting costs, Graham said, “We will absolutely be having to bring costs down.” But he added that many advertisers remain willing to pay for the paper’s unusually high penetration among households of the Washington area.