Back in December I wrote that I was hearing from multiple sources at the Seattle Times that the paper was going to institute an online paywall – charging non-subscribers to access Times content on their web site.

Then, crickets. Until Saturday, that is, when Times Executive Editor David Boardman announced that the Times is indeed instituting a paywall for digital access to Times content.

The Times is clearly nervous about reader reaction to the shift. Boardman very noticeably left the cost of the new “digital subscription” out of his article; that was buried in the fine print of the FAQ page that the Times added to their web site to explain the shift. After a short introductory rate, the Times will charge $3.99 a week for access, or about $17.50 a month (those who don’t pay will still be allowed to access some unspecified number of articles before their access is blocked, according to the FAQ).

Maybe the Times will survive, but with a diminished readership and less clout than it's been accustomed to in the past?

And Boardman’s announcement cheerily described the new charges as “good news” for all those non-subscribers who were previously getting Times online content for free since they “now will have the chance to directly help support quality journalism in our region.” He did acknowledge that, “we realize that nobody likes having to pay for something they’ve been receiving for free,” but goes on to propose that after due reflection, “you might even feel good about your contribution to sustaining the content you value.”

Indeed. I’m sure they’ll see it that way.

But the Times’ somewhat ham-fisted turn-that-frown-upside-down spin aside, this move was all but inevitable. As Boardman points out, most daily papers in the state—and more than 400 nationally—have begun charging for digital subscriptions, as they come to grips with the reality that ad dollars no longer support newsgathering costs.

When you add in what Boardman didn’t mention—that the Times’ print circulation is continuing its steady and seemingly inexorable decline – and it is clear the paper has to find a way to monetize better its growing online readership if it is going to survive.

Whether this actually works or not, who knows? Maybe this digital subscription paywall will turn out to be a critical part of a revamped business model that saves dailies like the Times, as print edition readers die off and people sign up to subscribe online. Or maybe this will just usher in a further decline in the reach and impact of the Washington’s largest daily, as droves of readers balk at paying the $4 a week and seek their news elsewhere, like other online sources, radio, and TV.

Or, maybe, a little of both things: The Times will survive, but with a diminished readership and less clout than it's been accustomed to in the past.

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