Changes at Washington Post prompt renewed discussions over paywall strategy

By Daniel Guerra

The recent ousting of Marcus Brauchli from the top editor’s spot at the Washington Post has renewed discussions over whether the newspaper should now install a paywall for its digital content.

Brauchli, 51, served nearly four years as executive editor at the Post. He will be replaced by Boston Globe editor Marty Brown by the end of the year. Brauchli’s tenure had been marked by the repeated downsizing of the newsroom and tensions between him and the Post's publisher Katharine Weymouth.

Brauchli's departure had been rumored and reported since the beginning of the month. A Nov. 12 post by Poynter discussed that The Post's struggle to identify itself as a Washington-focused paper or as a national media outlet served as one the reasons for the change. New York Times media columnist David Carr criticized Weymouth's handling of the situation, calling the move "akin to switching drivers just as the car is sputtering to a stop."

The personnel shift at The Post left some media observers wondering whether a digital paywall could help reverse the newspaper’s recent financial struggles. The newspaper is looking at $60 million loss during the first three quarters of this year and a fifth straight year of a net loss. As Dean Starkman of the Columbia Review of Journalism writes, the Post’s strategy to not include a digital subscription has “become the American newspaper industry’s poster child for the folly of clinging to a free digital strategy.”

“The illogic of giving away something online that you charge for elsewhere is now coming home to roost,” Starkman adds.

The Post’s peer newspapers—including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and L.A. Times—all have paywalls. Gannet, the country’s largest newspaper publisher, began using a paid model for all 80 of its regional newspaper’s websites in February 2012. Several of Canada’s newspapers are now introducing paywalls for their online content. Figures released by the New York Times in October 2012 show an increase in digital subscribers despite a deep plunge in its ad sales.

According to figures compiled by the Alliance for Audit Media (until earlier this month known as the Audit Bureau for Circulations), The Post has the 8th-largest circulation figure among U.S. newspapers, a figure that grew by 2% from last year.

A paywall for the Washington Post would be nothing more than ‘sandbag strategy’, according to GigaOm’s Matthew Ingram. Putting up a paywall, he argues, may give the newspaper more time but is not a long-term strategy for success.

“Sandbags don’t solve a rising water problem, just as paywalls won’t get rid of a declining revenue problem: you need to figure out how to get the water to stop coming in, or find out what is causing it and adapt to that. Paywalls do neither,” Ingram writes.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.