Washington Post says publishers can have mass audience and paywall, but content needs to be discoverable

BezosThe president of the Washington Post has downplayed concerns about the future of paywalls, telling a global forum of senior publishing executives that it is possible to achieve mass audience and a successful paid content strategy.

“We are believers in paid content and the model,” Steve Hills, president of the Washington Post told the International News Media Association World Congress in New York. “Paid content was essential for 180 years in the print newspaper business and there is no reason that shouldn’t be true going forward.”

“The question has been do you want a big audience or a paid audience.

“(Our owner) Jeff Bezos has been asking why do you have to choose? You don’t have to choose, we have a big paid audience – and they are getting bigger every day – and we have a big overall audience. You can do both.”

Hills’s comments come as many publishers globally have questioned the sustainability of paid content strategies.

Earlier this week, the Toronto Star addressed the World Congress explaining that it took down its paywall after finding it was ‘expensive’ and had a ‘high churn’ rate. It is one of a number of newspapers to take down its paywall in recent years.

The Washington Post executive said the challenge was about making its content “discoverable” and cited its deals with Amazon’s Kindle Fire, MSNBC and Flipboard as examples we it was pushing content out to readers.

“The question is how do you make your content discoverable,” he said. “With Kindle Fire we have a partnership where we have our content on it for free, yes its with Amazon but its good for them and for us.

“After six months they are asked ‘do you want to keep reading?’ and then they have to pay. They pay a $1 for six months and then full price.

“It is about ways of creating discovery that’s why we have partnerships with MSNBC, Flipboard etc.”

Hills said there was freedom that had been given to the Washington Post after the Amazon CEO and billionaire bought the struggling American newspaper.

He also noted that Bezos did not go down the cost cutting path but looked to build new revenue.

“Jeff Bezos came into the Washington Post and said I want you to continue to invest more in journalists because in a world of noise it matter if you have great storytelling. That’s the key to all media.

The Post's new licenced CMS

The Post’s new licenced CMS

“We also created a new line of business. We are just starting to introduce it – it is a digital platform for media and we are calling it a software service platform we are building these great tools. What if we licence that to people and create an opportunity to defray the cost of what we are already doing?”

The Washington Post is currently trialling the CMS with a number of university newspapers before rolling it out more broadly.

Hills told the room, filled with publishing executives, that the future of publishing would have to combine the best in design, engineering and journalism.

“The Washington Post can truly be world class – and I think this is why Jeff Bezos bought us – because we can possibly be world class on both axes (of journalism and engineering). In fact we need to be.

“There are great technology companies who are learning and investing in content and they aren’t there yet but they’ll get there.

“A key trend is bigger and smaller screens. We are responsively across screens but you need a different design for a watch than you do for a giant screen and design appropriately.”

He told the room that newspapers used to spend a lot of time focused on design, layout and engaging the read but that didn’t happen much online.

WashigtonHills told the room that with the Kindle Fire they were trying to bring some of that back.

“Newspapers have evolved over hundreds of years and there has been a lot intelligent thinking about how design has happened. With the web we threw out a lot of things – how do you reinvent the digital experience to make it fun, interesting and take advantage of the web.

“With the Kindle Fire – We have tried to bring back the browsing experience and build something that is easy to touch and beautiful and also think about native ads and videos.

“The young consumer wants something big, beautiful and bold. The journalistic content is important but the young consumer wants something that is packaged in a way that is really interesting and beautiful. That is one of the big bets we have made.”

Hills also argued that publishers need to embrace their software engineers and coders arguing that publishing in the future would need great specialists in this space.

“Importantly engineers need to be treated as first class citizens,” he said.

“What that means is that in the old days we had an IT department and we’d have a bunch of smart people design something throw it over the wall to the engineering department then complain about the engineering process that goes on and it takes forever and is not successful.

“The new world is that engineers, journalists and ad sales executives sit together and work together.”

Nic Christensen in New York

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