WSJ reports that The Washington Post may be caving on paywalls

By Sarah Lacy , written on December 6, 2012

From The News Desk

This is interesting.

Not more than a few weeks after much of the digital world came out and high-fived the Washington Post for focusing its money-losing woes on cutting staff and not erecting a paywall, the Journal cites unnamed sources saying that the Post is indeed considering a paywall.

It's unclear exactly what's going on here. The very tech-savvy Washington Post Chairman Don Graham has long said the Post wasn't interested in paywalls, and just this week at a UBS investor conference he reiterated that, saying he was concerned a paywall would threaten the Post's ad business. But Graham and the Post's publisher Katherine Weymouth have been careful to keep the door to a paywall slightly ajar at the same time. Graham has complimented the New York Times paywall -- which is quite porous. The Journal reports that the Post would have a similar scheme that would allow casual (read: national) readers to read a certain number of stories for free.

The Post is in a unique situation because it's essentially a local paper that also has a national following, thanks in large part to its legacy and proximity to power brokers in the Nation's capital. But unlike the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times which are national papers first and foremost, there's concern that a paywall would kill the Post's national readership, essentially relegating it to a local paper. That'd be a psychological come down for the vaunted paper that is one of the last great family-owned media empires in America.

I don't envy Graham. The Post is struggling with the same thing every paper and every declining giant stuck with an innovator's dilemma has to face. He has tried mightily not to just grab the easy crutch of the paywall. But faced with the alternative of making very steep cuts to editorial, the family may be getting worn down by the pressure.

But as we argued a few weeks ago, a paywall alone won't be the answer. The gap between costs and revenues is still too great, even if the Post could put up New York Times-like numbers. So if this winds up being a victory for paywall boosters, it'll be a somewhat Pyrrhic one.

[Image courtesy The Armatura Press]