Always a little late to the frontiers of digital journalism, The Washington Post has confirmed all the rumors of an inevitable "new" way to make money off its "savvy" readers: This summer, the paper's website will adopt a metered paywall system that's very similar to The New York Times — and, just like the Times, digitally savvy readers will probably find a way to access it for free.
The Post paywall, which gives casual readers access to as many as 20 free articles a month, doesn't have pricing numbers beyond that. It sounds like that part is still in the testing phase: "We're definitely engaging in research to come to the right price," Post publisher Katharine Weymouth told the Post's Steven Mufson. But according to an earlier report, the paper has tried out different costs, including $14.95 per month for unlimited online access without print delivery. That happens to be exactly what the Times charges for access to NYTimes.com and its phone apps, and that's working out pretty well for them, so it's pretty clear which paper of record is bearing the standards these days.
What's less clear is just exactly how lenient the Post's paywall will become. "News consumers are savvy; they understand the high cost of a top-quality news gathering operation," Weymouth says. And everyone else is wondering if the Post is savvy enough to plug the holes in the Internet's big new news paywall. Heck, everyone else is doing it, so the Post will probably follow suit, right? The Times cracked down last month on a URL workaround that was the Internet's unspoken key to free articles, making "some adjustments to optimize the gateway" that you can still kind of work around. The folks at The Wall Street Journal are something of paywall pioneers for a non-metered system with hand-picked articles that float outside the walled garden, but you could also Google any Journal headline as two-step path to freedom — until the Google trick mysteriously stopped working all the time of late, even if you typed the headline into Google News. In both cases, readers understood the high costs of a top-quality news gathering operation... and decided not to pay them.
So how will the Post go about confronting a generation of newspaper readers partially accustomed to stealing the news? The biggest loophole so far appears to be the Post's deal to give free access to students, teachers, school administrators, members of the military, and government employees. That's a lot of D.C. residents, as Forbes's Jeff Bercovici notes. "More than 20% of District of Columbia residents work for the federal government, as do 12% of workers in Maryland and Virginia," he writes. And while the Post has doubled down on being a local paper, that's a lot of people, and it's not even counting how many college students are in the area — or how many college students with thin bank accounts might share their log-ins with their friends. And even with all those generous free subscriptions, questions regarding how to hack the paywall remain: Will someone build a plug-in? Will clearing a browser cache steal the news? How about the old question-mark trick that worked at the Times for so long? We'll have to wait until the summer and see how tight the Post's security is, but if you really don't want to pay the Post, there's usually always a way to contribute to the decline of print media.