The Seattle Times Paywall

The last daily standing now charges for its web content. Will that prove its worth to readers and critics?

By James Ross Gardner April 17, 2013 Published in the May 2013 issue of Seattle Met

In case you required further proof The Seattle Times won the war, the trophy in Alan Fisco’s office should suffice. Blood red and squat, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer vending box that cowers in the corner contains the final print issue of the P-I, a prize from the century-long newspaper feud that ended when the Hearst-owned pub coughed out its last print edition on March 17, 2009. But Fisco, the Seattle Times executive vice president of revenue and new products, now knows, if he didn’t before, that with the spoils comes the burden of victory. With the P-I all but vanquished—its web-only skeleton crew posts pics of Miley Cyrus’s latest ’do—it is up to him and the Times alone to cut a path in a city impatient with a fraught industry. The daily faces an uphill climb. In November 2012 it dropped out of the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s list of the top 25 newspapers in the country. And that was after a nearly 7 percent decline in circulation the previous quarter. 

This spring, Fisco led the erecting of a paywall, one that requires frequent users of to subscribe or make do with less. The paper was hardly breaking new ground. When The New York Times established a paywall in early 2011, more than 400 of the nation’s 1,300 or so daily papers followed. And most of the dailies in Washington state have gone the toll route, including Tacoma’s News Tribune. “There were a few failed experiments in the last decade, so a few papers have held out,” says Rick Edmonds, an analyst at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based media think tank. “But now we’re of the view that they should all do it.”

And yet when Seattle Times executive editor David Boardman announced the decision in February, the online trolls pounced, trashing the paper as unworthy of their dollars. (One person, author of over 8,200 comments on the site, wrote, “When I want real journalism I go to [sic], and others.”) It underscored an ancient challenge: getting a community that relies on the multi–Pulitzer Prize–winning paper to grasp the monetary value of a 200-plus-person newsroom that produces original content 365 days a year.

Under the new scheme, all Seattle Times print subscribers, including those only receiving the Sunday edition, have unfettered access to web content and a line of mobile apps. A $4 a week digital--only sub is also an option. Casual visitors to the site will get a free peek, but unlike that of The New York Times—which allows users to read 10 stories in a month—the algorithm that determines when Seattle Times’s metered paywall kicks in remains a mystery to consumers. Why so secret? “There is a fear,” speculates Edmonds, “that not enough people will take you up on your offer.”

The newspaper enlisted University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute to help develop a toll system. Paywalls, according to RJI, are a balancing act: Charge too little and leave “money on the table”; too much and drive “away loyal, valuable customers.” Fisco says he has the numbers to justify the move, though he won’t go into the details.

Secrets aside, the paper has erected a barrier, with free riders and bloodthirsty trolls on one side and itself on the other—along with its former enemy’s head on a spike. Fisco claims there are enough people out there willing to pay up. The survival of the city’s last standing daily paper of record depends on him being right. 

Published: May 2013

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