Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why the Washington Post needs a paywall, of sorts

The Washington Post's website is one of the few where I maintain an "account". The paper has no paywall, but being registered at the site does allow one to comment on stories. What else it does I have no idea.

In fact, the WaPo is, like The Guardian, one of the major newspapers of the English world that has resisted the call to build a paywall. But no one is pure, it seems: The Guardian charges for its tablet edition, even though it is just taking content from the free website, and the WaPo's own tablet has said that the app's content is free "for a limited time" for as long as I can remember.

Back in early December the WSJ broke a story that said that the Post “is likely to” erect a paywall in 2013. That story was followed almost two weeks later with a story on the Post's own site saying that the company was, indeed, considering erecting a metered paywall, that "the decision is not final."

“We are obviously looking at paywalls of every type,” he said. “But the reason we haven’t adopted one yet is that we haven’t found one that actually adds to profits immediately. But we’re going to continue to study every model of paywall . . . as well as thinking about keeping it free," the Post's chief executive, Donald Graham, said at the media investors conference that started all the talk in the first place.

But the Post does need a paywall for its website... or at least a wall, a big one.

The reason is that the Post's website is quickly becoming a gathering spot for the nation's disenchanted, its ill civil (not an actual word, but I like it), its trolls. Read any story about just about anything, especially opinion and political stories, and one can not believe what one reads. Are Americans this hateful, this spiteful, this partisan, this ignorant? Maybe, but the website of the WaPo is ground zero for all of this.

The NYT has two things going for it in its fight against trolls, and hateful commenting: its paywall and its comment moderators. Comments do not appear on the site immediately, and often comments are deleted because of their content. The downside is that responding to a previously posted comment is difficult, the delay makes having a conversation, even a good one, hard. The delay, though, tends to make those seeking instant gratification go away. It's hard to have an argument when the comments being written appear hours apart – it would be like arguing with an alien millions of miles away.

That doesn't keep the NYT troll-free, and the NYT likes it like that – they need the traffic just like everyone else – but they don't want to scare away their paying readers either. It's a fine line and one that is hard to maintain.

The Post, though, doesn't seem to be trying, and as a result is seeing its website become a center for abusive commenting. I'm quite sure the Post, too, likes the traffic, but the paying customers – print for now, digital in the future – will think twice before handing their money over.