Washington Post explores ‘flexible’ payments amid editor change

Washington Post explores ‘flexible’ payments amid editor change

The Washington Post is adding a third newsroom, apart from its core news and opinion operations, as part of a broader “Build It” plan that seeks to move the outlet away from a one-size-fits-all approach to news consumption.

It will focus on video storytelling, embracing AI to assist coverage, and offer “flexible” payment methods.

The new division will be operational by Q3 and hopes to give consumers “compelling, exciting and accurate news where they are and in the style that they want”, according to a spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the core news division will focus on developing a new suite of professional subscription products (dubbed Pro, Plus and Membership) to provide additional value to existing subscribers.

A shift at the top

The news comes amid a reshuffle of the news brand’s commercial and editorial strategy as the publisher has seen significant drops in audience and revenue. According to Semafor, The Washington Post lost $77m over the past year and has shed half of its audience since 2021.

On Sunday, executive editor Sally Buzbee, who joined in 2021 after three decades at The Associated Press, stepped down from her role, effective immediately.

Former Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Matt Murray becomes Buzbee’s immediate replacement through the 2024 US presidential election. Afterwards, Telegraph Media Group deputy editor Robert Winnett will take on the new role of editor, with Murray then moving to lead the new third newsroom.

Both Murray and Winnett, as well as opinion lead David Shipley, will report to ex-Dow Jones editor Sir William Lewis, who was appointed CEO of The Washington Post in November 2023 following a stint at digital startup The News Movement. Both Winnett and Lewis are British.

Could micropayments give a boost to publishers?

Analysis: Foray into pay-as-you-go

According to Puck, the “flexible” payment model offered for the third newsroom will include a pay-as-you-go option, allowing users to access single articles or content from specific writers.

In doing so, The Washington Post would become the first major newspaper of record to embrace the model, which some industry figures and consumers have argued is both business- and consumer-friendly, even if unproven.

The benefit of this approach, according to Byers, is about netting significant extra revenue and obtaining contact details of interested users in order to enter them into a marketing funnel, with the goal of eventually turning them into full-paying subscribers.

But Dominic Young, founder of digital news micropayment tool Axate, believes there are more immediate benefits as well.

“Most subscription publishers only have a tiny percentage of their audience as active subscribers. Many of them have a greater number as ex-subscribers, now locked out,” he told The Media Leader. “New subscribers are only attracted by very steep and long-lasting discounts.

“The reality for many subscription publishers is that they have hit a plateau of subscriber numbers and that average revenue per user is falling because of discounts. They can’t grow just by trying (or discounting) harder with the same approaches.

“The new team [at The Washington Post] is looking at the existing models, which are failing, and choosing not to simply repeat a strategy which no longer works. They’re trying new approaches to both business model and product — showing leadership.”

Sesamy urges publishers to explore opportunities in one-off article purchases

Scalable model

Young called the adoption of the pay-as-you-go model a “first step” in creating “a far larger customer base”. If The Washington Post manages to get a proportion of its non-paying users to spend even $1 per month, he continued, “it will add up to a material amount of money”. In particular, it is an “indefinitely scalable model”, unlike subscriptions, which have a set maximum amount of money a given consumer can (or is willing to) spend.

Based on his own commercial conversations, Young expects other publishers to expand their models to embrace casual payments. This is especially true because publishers’ anxieties about generative AI reducing referral traffic from search has made them less risk-averse and “in a mood for change”.

“It is likely others will follow,” Måns Ulvestam, founder of pay-per-article tech platform Sesamy, agreed.

Ulvestam told The Media Leader that The Washington Post and The New York Times “tend to set trends in monetising news” and praised the former’s foray into pay-as-you-go as “good news for the consumer”, given it allows readers to access and pay for content “in a way that suits them”.

Young added: “I am certain that where The Washington Post leads, others are already set to follow, or maybe even beat them to the market.”

Media Jobs