Washington Post’s partnership with local papers draws encouraging early results

Post survey: Program makes readers more likely to maintain subscriptions to regional papers

Back in April, we asked whether a new partnership program between The Washington Post and regional papers around the country—in which print subscribers to participating local papers get free digital access to the Post’s website and apps—might be “one way to put a high-quality local-national news bundle back together.”

It’s way too early to say whether that will happen. But a bit of reader research conducted by the Post, reported this week by Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon, at least offers some evidence for the theory. 

Here’s the document summarizing the findings:

Washington Post Digital Partner Program research

And here are some of the highlights of the online survey, which queried a random sample of subscribers of local partner papers:

  • 92 percent of respondents who had activated the digital Post access said it added value to their local-paper print subscription, and 64 percent said the access made them more likely to continue their print subscription for the next six months;
  • More than half the respondents agreed their local paper was their “primary source for news,” and only a tiny fraction said they read the local paper less often after getting digital Post access;
  • Readers reported greatest interest in Post coverage of national news, national politics, and international news—exactly the areas that many local papers have cut back on as they emphasized local news;
  • In a qualitative response that could have come straight from the business plan for the partnership, one reader said the local paper “has strengthened its position in its local market by concentrating on local and regional news. The Post offers a broader overview of national and international news and does an outstanding job of providing perspective on political activity in the District and around the nation. The two papers are a great balance and complement each other.”

It would be a mistake to read too much into this. The hoped-for practical effect of the program for local papers is that it can help them retain print subscribers, even as they raise rates. (An annual print/digital subscription to the Toledo Blade costs as much as a year-long Web/phone subscription to The New York Times.) The results to date are consistent with that goal, based on what executives at local papers told Beaujon, but it remains to be seen how real and how powerful this effect is over the longer term.

And while the survey found that local readers reported being aware of, and activating, free Post digital access at high rates, the papers have not made detailed data on uptake rates available. We don’t know how many people are actually taking advantage of the offer.

It’s also worth acknowledging that, obviously, as newspapers try to adapt to the new business environment, shoring up the print subscriber base can only do so much. And that, if you’re the sort who sees partnering with Jeff Bezos as a recipe for eventually getting steamrolled and seeing the price and value of your content fall, you might be restrained in your enthusiasm for what this program offers local papers.

Still, the early data is encouraging, and the program bears watching, both for how it fits into the Post’s resurgent ambitions and for how it might support local publications. The “unbundling” of news has hit local papers especially hard, and the crop of digital publications arising in their wake is promising but patchwork. There are real civic implications to these events. At minimum, this program offers a chance to see what happens when we try to put the bundle back together.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.