March 18, 2014 2:02 pm

Washington Post widens access to its digital content

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The news that that the Washington Post is to be sold to billionaire Jeff Bezos is displayed on an electronic ticker board outside the Washington Post Co. headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Aug. 5, 2013. Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos agreed to buy the Washington Post for $250 million, betting that he can apply his success in e-commerce to the struggling newspaper industry.©Bloomberg

The Washington Post is launching a programme that offers subscribers of partner newspapers and services free access to its paid digital products, in one of the publisher’s first major developments under Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Through the partnership, print and digital subscribers to other newspapers will receive a special code that grants them access to the Washington Post website and mobile applications. The subscription normally costs more than $100 a year.

The programme kicks off in May with local and regional US newspapers representing a combined circulation of more than 1m, including the Dallas Morning News and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. It could expand to include any company that sells premium subscriptions, such as Amazon’s Prime delivery service, Spotify’s music streaming service and pay television providers, said Steve Hills, president of the Washington Post.

The development marks a substantial strategy shift for the Washington Post, which plans to broaden its digital footprint nationally and internationally after previously retrenching to focus on the local Washington market. In 2009, the Washington Post closed bureaux in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The move comes after Mr Bezos last year acquired the newspaper for $250m following eight decades of ownership by the Graham family. Since taking control, Mr Bezos has asked Washington Post executives to explore how they can position the business to succeed digitally for the long term, Mr Hills said.

He is asking a different question. He is asking the question of: ‘What can you do to have a great digital audience 10 years, 20 years from now?’” Mr Hills said. “Under previous ownership, the very reasonable question we were asking was: ‘How do we make money in the next two to three years?’

“This different orientation opens up a wide range of new opportunities,” he added. “That’s the interesting part of the story.”

Washington Post executives are betting that they will create a competitive advantage by building a large, national brand publishing high-quality journalism for the digital age. “There are niche high-quality brands and there are very large emerging companies that have scaled but do not have the history of journalistic quality that we have,” Mr Hills said. “There is an attractive position for any institution that can deliver scale and the sort of journalistic quality that we are known for.”

The new partnership programme is the first step in that broader effort. No cash changes hands between the Washington Post and its partners. In exchange for offering up its content, the Washington Post is hoping for national exposure and brand promotion.

The development comes against the backdrop of an industry in continued turmoil. During the past decade, newspaper revenues halved with the erosion of advertising and circulation sales. As a result, newspapers slashed jobs by about a third and axed national bureaux to focus on local and regional news.

Even if it doesn’t work, the fact that they are out experimenting . . . is in and of itself valuable

- Jim Moroney, Dallas Morning News publisher and chief

One recent bright spot has been the rise of digital newspaper subscriptions. The Washington Post estimates that its new programme has the potential to generate more than $1bn in value for the newspaper industry, assuming 10m subscribers access the Washington Post’s paid products.

A larger footprint would give the Washington Post more heft in selling advertisements, among other possibilities.

“It is particularly gratifying to see a national brand newspaper company like the Washington Post reaching out with an experiment, to see if both parties can get something out of this,” said Jim Moroney, publisher and chief executive of the Dallas Morning News.

“Even if it doesn’t work, the fact that they are out experimenting and trying some things and bringing newspapers together to create some scale is in and of itself valuable.”

It is unlikely that other national US newspapers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal will join the programme, because it is not open to publishers that distribute in the Washington Post’s distribution area.

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