It’s not yet clear how the coronavirus pandemic will affect payment levels for online news. The initial surge in news use near the beginning of the crisis led to optimism that an increase in paid subscriptions would soon follow. But at the same time many people’s finances have been badly affected, meaning they may have to make tough decisions about what they can and cannot afford. All this comes at a time when the stakes for many publishers have never been higher, as print revenues have shrunk during lockdowns, and there’s more and more pressure to bring in money online.
Our data collection took place before many countries experienced a dramatic rise in reported coronavirus cases, so it cannot speak directly to these issues. But it does provide key information on the situation faced by publishers going into the crisis – much of which will still be relevant today, as past changes to attitudes and behaviour around paying for news have tended to be gradual rather than sudden.
This year we took a more detailed look at online news subscriptions. To do this, we used a separate online survey in three countries – Norway, the US, and the UK – that focused on paying for news. Most of data described here come from this survey. As always, survey data are not necessarily fully aligned with self-reported figures from the industry – each source has different strengths and weaknesses, with survey research best suited for getting at demographic and attitudinal patterns around certain behaviours.
In Norway, paying for online news is more widespread than in any other market in our survey, at around 45%. In the US, paying for online news is relatively common (20%), rising sharply after the election of Donald Trump. In the UK, paying for online news is yet to take off, with fewer than one in ten paying in the last year.
We used sample sizes of around 4,000 people in the US and the UK to ensure that the group that pays for online news was large enough to analyse separately (in Norway, as a higher proportion of people pay for online news, the paying group is large enough with a sample size of 2,000). The surveys used different questions to our main Digital News Report survey, but these questions tended to produce quite similar results. For example, figures for the proportion of people paying for online news were within the margin of error for both surveys.
Single Brand Access Still Dominates
Let’s first consider people who have access to news that you would normally have to pay for. It makes sense to start here because some people have access to paywalled news through free trials, via their job, and so on. We will come on to those who actually pay with their own money later.
There are different forms of access, but the three most common are subscriptions to online news from a single brand, subscriptions to a print/digital bundle from a single brand, and a subscription to multiple brands aggregated in one place. Of these, digital-only subscriptions to a single brand are the most common form of access in all three countries. Print-digital bundles have clearly proved successful in Norway, with 20% of online news users currently using them to access paid online news. Paid news aggregators are relatively popular in the US, mainly thanks to Apple News+, but at the moment these are far less common than subscriptions to single news brands.
A Winner-Takes-Most Market
As we saw in the Executive Summary, people mainly have access to one of a small group of prominent brands. In the US, over half of these people have access to either the New York Times or the Washington Post, and in the UK, it’s The Times or the Telegraph. Norway is different because many people have access to paid news from a range of different local and regional newspapers, with national titles like VG and Aftenposten also popular. As we described in last year’s report, most people only have access to paid news from one brand, creating winner-takes-most dynamics, but a significant minority in the US and Norway take out subscriptions to more than one title – often a local or specialist title in addition to a national one.
Most Access is Being Paid for
Up to this point we’ve referred to people who have ‘access to online news that you would normally have to pay for’. However, most of this group have access because they are paying for subscriptions with their own money – 75% in Norway and the UK, and 84% in the US. For under-45s the figure is lower. But among those 45 and over, the vast majority of those who have access are paying with their own money.
Motivations for Paying for News
The reasons for subscribing to an online publication are complex and partly affected by supply-side factors such as the amount of high-quality free news available. In the United States and especially Norway, many publishers have introduced paywalls, which means more people will be asked to pay – perhaps heightening a sense of scarcity and creating a feeling that news could be worth paying for. In the UK, by contrast, only a relatively small number of publications try to charge for news.
Beyond this, we see subscribers weighing up personal benefits, such as distinctive content, convenience, and value, with perceived benefits for society – such as having a strong and independent media able to hold politicians to account. In this regard it is interesting to compare the different reasons subscribers give in the United States and United Kingdom for paying for online news.
Overall, the most important factor is the distinctiveness and quality of the content. In both countries, subscribers believe they are getting better information than from free sources. More than a third cite a close affinity with a particular journalist as a reason to subscribe. In the US we find more people prepared to pay to get ahead in their job (13% compared to just 3% in the UK) and this tallies with a bigger proportion subscribing to finance publications like the Wall Street Journal. The competitive nature of the US market, with multiple publications chasing subscriptions, is also making subscribers more aware of value, with one-third citing getting a ‘good deal‘ as a reason to subscribe.
I have an excellent discount with my Prime subscription and with the excellent reporting, there’s no reason not to continue it.
Female, 64, Washington Post subscriber
Subscribers in the US are also more likely to say they want to help fund good journalism (52% compared with 39% in the UK). We know from our earlier surveys that much of the recent surge in subscriptions in the United States has come from those wanting to support liberal publications critical of Donald Trump – but there’s also a more fundamental desire for quality journalism. These respondent comments were typical of many in our survey:
It’s never been a more important time to fund great, vetted journalism like the Times and the Post.
Female, 59, New York Times subscriber
I like to sponsor local newspaper journalists. They are a dying breed.
Female, 58, local newspaper subscriber
One interesting theme from our respondent comments was the sense of value that comes from additional elements, such as recipes and crosswords, that are often bundled in with the core news offer. The Times of London also runs regular competitions and discounts for artistic events that were widely mentioned in our open-ended questions. These additional elements seem to be particularly valuable for retention as they build habit and are less replicable elsewhere.
For Norwegians too the distinctiveness of content came out on top along with convenience and ease of use. ‘Aftenposten is a serious newspaper with great quality’, said one respondent, but it was striking that ‘supporting good journalism’ is less of a motivation (21%) – perhaps because mainstream media outlets are seen as less polarised in Norway.
Most People Think they Will Still Be Paying Next Year
Around 80–90% of people paying with their own money think they are at least somewhat likely to still be paying for access this time next year. Additionally, around half of those who currently have free access say that they might start paying if their free access runs out. This is encouraging, and perhaps more encouraging still is that these figures imply retention rates that are comparable to those for subscriptions to video and audio streaming services like Netflix and Spotify.
It’s worth keeping in mind that these data describe what people think they will do in the future, and were collected before a pandemic that has left many people financially worse off. It can also be seen as a useful reminder that people do not necessarily subscribe forever, and boasts about the number of ‘new subscribers’ may not be telling the whole story. There’s substantial ‘churn’ in this area, as many people end their free trials before they have to pay, or simply cancel their subscriptions to spend their money on other things. Lapsed subscribers tended to be younger and often much more price conscious:
The price was too high compared to the value the information I was given.
Female, 37, Norway
It cost way too much and I can get round the paywall.
Male, 36, US
Too expensive, felt there was nothing I couldn’t get for free on Apple News.
Female, 19, UK
In the UK, the number of people that used to have access to paid news (10%) is close to the number of people that currently have access (9%) – with the equivalent figures from the US and Norway higher still (albeit lower than the number of people with access). Increasing subscriber numbers is in part about tempting people back to news, as well as encouraging people to pay for the first time.
How Can Publishers Attract New Subscribers?
As we’ve already seen, existing subscribers are relatively happy, but with income from digital advertising uncertain many publishers will be looking to increase the number of new subscribers. In comparing our three countries we see some interesting differences that could inform publisher strategies.
First, we observe a very high proportion (40% in the US and 50% in the UK) who say that nothing could persuade them to pay. Many of these have low interest in news, or are sufficiently happy with the many free news sources available in these countries. But in Norway, where interest in news tends to be higher – and where free news is more restricted – only 19% say they couldn’t be persuaded.
Price and convenience are some of the key factors that could make a difference. In Norway, a third (30%) say they might subscribe if it was cheaper and 17% if they could pay to access multiple sites from a single payment. Others were interested in exploring family logins, similar to those offered by Netflix or Spotify. Publishers have increasingly been offering differential pricing to pick up business from those unlikely to pay full price (e.g. overseas customers and students). Paying to avoid intrusive advertisements is another potential route for publishers, with around one in seven respondents in all three countries saying this this might tempt them to subscribe.
Going forward, news organisations will want to consider these signals about value of both price and user experience more closely. As we have argued before, people often weigh up one media subscription against another and the way news is currently sold does not always fit the requirements for easy, flexible, uncluttered access to multiple sources that people say they would like.
[I cancelled my subscription because] it was expensive and only one view, and I prefer a summary from different sources to try and balance bias
Male, 69, UK
Instead, the messaging is often around restrictions and barriers. Having said that, it is important to note that one-stop-shop paid aggregators have made limited headway for news – perhaps because they do not always include a comprehensive mix of the best content. The fear of missing out can be a powerful barrier.
People Wary about Registering with News Sites
Some outlets now ask readers to register with them in order to be able to access a small number of articles for free. Many journalists would see this as a fair trade-off, but the public are more wary. In all three countries fewer than half think registering is a fair trade, but it’s also clear that people are not strongly opposed either. Between a fifth and a quarter are unsure, perhaps because it’s often unclear why news outlets want people to register in the first place, and what they will do with any user data they collect.
Only a Minority Trying to Sidestep Paywalls
Between 13% and 22% in our three countries say they registered to access news content in the last year. Some are also using other techniques to get around paywalls – such as resetting cookies, changing their browser settings, or even downloading dedicated software. Just a third say they have ever tried to do something like this, as it requires a certain level of digital literacy, and many are probably unaware that is a possibility. Some may simply be content with what they can access for free.
People have different views about the rights and wrongs of attempting to sidestep paywalls. Few would argue that this is always justifiable, but some people do have reservations about important public-interest journalism only being available to those willing and able to pay for it. A paywalled exposé of the UK government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak by the Sunday Times led to a heated debate about the issue on Twitter, with some attempting to openly share the full article. Other outlets decided to make most of their coronavirus coverage free to access, as they have for other big events in the past.
Across all markets, 20% say they are ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about people missing out on paywalled news – about the same number who say they are ‘not at all’ concerned. People express similar levels of concern over the fact they themselves might be missing out. Journalists understandably have strong views on this issue, but it is not something that concerns the public.
The data here were collected before the coronavirus situation really became a crisis in the US, the UK, and Norway. But it seems very likely that the coronavirus pandemic has increased the pressure on many news outlets to make money from digital news. We’ve already seen how some outlets have changed their messaging around paywalls, or become stricter about ad-blockers. In the longer term, it is possible that the gravity of the situation will prompt people to reconsider their attitudes towards news, and crucially, how much they value it. Time will tell.