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Will washingtonpost.com cost you money?

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The Post is closer to charging you for online news than it was only nine months ago, when I last wrote about this subject. But the decision is not final.

Citing unnamed sources, the Wall Street Journal reported Dec. 6 that The Post “is likely to” erect a metered “paywall” around its Web content in 2013, no earlier than summer. Online readers could see a designated number of articles for free each month; to see more than that, they would have to pay a fee. The Post published a similar story later that day online, and the next day in print, citing an unnamed source.

Yet at a meeting with Post employees this week, Publisher Katharine Weymouthdeclined to announce a paywall or even to say whether the company had made a decision to charge for online subscriptions. “We continue to look at it, we are open to it,” she said. “We have not made the decision to do it.”

That jibes with remarks made by Washington Post Co. Chief Executive Donald Graham at a Dec. 3 media investors conference in New York. He said the company continues to study the issue.

“We are obviously looking at paywalls of every type,” he said. “But the reason we haven’t adopted one yet is that we haven’t found one that actually adds to profits immediately. But we’re going to continue to study every model of paywall . . . as well as thinking about keeping it free.”

Clearly, more executives at higher echelons in the company have bought into the paywall idea. Graham, however, has been skeptical because of The Post’s position in the marketplace. That position is very different, for example, from that of the New York Times or the Boston Globe, both of which charge for some online content.

The Times is a national newspaper in print and online; it delivers print editions all over the country. It began charging online in March 2011 and it now reports more than 500,000 digital subscribers.The Globe, in contrast, is almost exclusively a local paper and has only about 25,000 digital subscribers, Graham said.

The Post is a hybrid. It is a D.C.-area paper; its subscribers produce the bulk of circulation revenue. But you have to multiply the number of Sunday print readers (650,000) by 27 to get the 18 million unique readers who come to the Web site each month, according to Graham, because lots of people outside this region need and want to know about national politics and the U.S. government.

“We have a digital audience that’s 90 percent outside Washington,” Graham explained at the New York investors conference. “So you’d guess that, if we put up a very firm paywall, we would lose some of that. And we have . . . a very significant amount of digital advertising. So, if you lose the audience, you’ll lose the advertising.”

The Post cannot afford to lose any revenue; it must build an online fee structure that adds to the bottom line.

So what would a paywall mean to Post readers?

Under any paywall envisioned, subscribers to the printed Post in the Washington area would continue to get their online content free, say Post company officials. Indeed, a paywall may slow the decline in print subscribers, as it did with the New York Times. If you get The Post free online with your print subscription, there would be less reason to drop the paper edition. But that would require The Post to keep up a steady and high-quality diet of local news from the suburban counties that are home to so many subscribers.

A paywall could turn away casual readers of The Post from around the country, and even internationally, but a core of people who need to keep up on U.S. political and governmental news may find it worth the price.

That, however, means that The Post’s journalism has to maintain its high quality. The New York Times is a formidable competitor. The Post has to be as good as the Times, and probably better in the key areas of politics and government, if it is to command a fee for online stories.

That’s hard to do in a steadily shrinking newsroom that has to hire more Web producers and information-technology workers to keep up an attractive and functional Web site, yet keep enough boots-on-the ground reporters to write the copy to fill the site and the paper.

I also worry that in this process, high-quality journalism would become affordable only to the affluent. What about folks who live in the District’s Ward 7 or Ward 8, who not many years ago shelled out a quarter to get the news? How would they stay informed?

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

Read more from the Ombudsman: Patrick Pexton: A new era — and editor — for The Post Patrick Pexton: The Post forgets to be local Patrick Pexton: Outsourcing customer service at The Post

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