Paying for News

In this section we will analyse the growth in paying for online news that we see in some countries, and examine some of the reasons why people pay (and why most don’t). For the first time we are able to contextualise our figures for paying for online news with comparable figures for digital audio and video. To complement our survey data we carried out a series of eight focus groups across four countries (UK, USA, Spain, and Finland) on the topic of paying for news. We will refer to some of the findings from these throughout this section.

We start with the headline figures for paying for online news. Here, we place the focus on people who say they have made an ‘ongoing payment (subscription) for a digital news service’ in the last year, as these are often the most lucrative for publishers. Payment figures tend to be higher in Nordic countries like Denmark (10%), Sweden (12%), and Norway (15%). However, they fall to just 2% in Greece and the Czech Republic. Similarly, just 3% in the UK paid for an ongoing news subscription in the last year.

The lighter shading on the column chart below indicates other types of payment for online news, including one-off purchases for single editions, print/digital bundles, and donations. We can see at a glance that these are more common than ongoing payments in some markets.

Thinking about all types of payment for online news over time, we find that in most of the countries we have been tracking for several years there has been little significant change in the top-level figures. The clear exception to this rule is the USA, where the figure has leapt from 9% in 2016 to 16% in 2017.

One thing that has been unclear until now is where this increase has come from. Who is paying now that wasn’t one year ago? There is evidence of growth from two sections of society: younger people and those on the political left. As shown in the next chart, we see some growth across all age groups, but particularly from the under 35s. In the USA, the proportion of people aged 18–24 paying for online news rose from 4% in 2016 to 18% in 2017. We see the same pattern by political leaning; some growth within all groups, but particularly from those on the left. It is too early to know whether these increases constitute a groundswell, or simply a knee-jerk reaction to a political shock.

We also asked those who are currently paying for the most important reasons behind their decision. Interestingly, the USA (29%) had the highest proportion saying that they wanted to fund journalism out of all 36 markets studied. A quarter (25%) said the same in Australia. Here, we have seen donations to news organisations jump from 1% in both countries in 2016, to 3% in Australia, and 4% in the USA in the space of a year (amongst the whole population. But this pattern is not repeated elsewhere. If we look across all 36 markets, just 13% said they paid because they wanted to fund journalism.

In our focus groups, people expressed reservations about the idea of donating money to commercial entities, and were often unclear on why they were being asked to do so. This is linked to a perfectly justifiable lack of understanding about the state of the news business. It is not obvious to outsiders, for example, why publishers give content away for free at a time when they are losing money, or why digital advertising should be worth so much less than print advertising. When the situation was explained in focus group discussions, it was often met with surprise, followed by sympathy and concern, but also an undeniable sense of Schadenfreude amongst those who have lost trust.

I never really thought they were losing funding … I thought so many were accessing the news online that they make so much money from advertising.

20–34, UK

They’re a train wreck … the bickering, the fighting, the name calling … they’re just so biased on both sides, it just gets annoying.

35–54, USA

In almost all countries, the most commonly cited reasons for paying are to get access on mobile devices, because of a good deal or print/digital bundle, or because people like to consume news from a range of sources that includes paid-for providers. However, there are variations in the reasons for paying between markets. Mobile access is more important in many of the smartphone-first markets, such as Sweden, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Whereas in Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands, print/digital bundles have persuaded a significant number of people to pay.

Interestingly, when asked about the type of content that had most influenced their decision to pay, across all 36 markets breaking news (41%) and reporting on recent events (38%) come out top. In-depth analysis (34%) and commentary (29%), which tend to be distinct to the news source, are next on the list. Comparatively few people (23%) pay for access to entertaining or amusing news content. The importance of breaking news is perhaps surprising, given that in most countries people can get the same breaking news from a number of free alternatives. This reasoning has motivated some publishers (such as The Times of London) to stop providing breaking news to their paying customers. This makes sense for publishers, and whilst there was some recognition from our focus groups that social media often does breaking news better, it may ultimately be hard to explain this to paying customers who expect to get the full package.

If I am paying for it I would rather be the first to know.

20–34, USA

In our survey we focused on different types of coverage, but the focus groups allowed for other factors to emerge. People valued quality content, in particular good writers, exclusives, and behind-the-scenes access. Additionally, people stressed the importance of mobile apps that are customisable, easy to use, and can integrate multiple devices.

It should feel useful, news that I can’t get anywhere else, a well thought-out and well written piece, not just something that’s thrown together and put on the internet.

20–34, Finland

Some people are more engaging, I find. Personally, that’s why I pay for the New York Times.

20–34, USA

We should always keep in mind that most people still do not pay for online news. The first two bars from the left in the next chart represent those who are either very unlikely, or somewhat unlikely, to pay for online news in the future. However, we can see that the ‘Trump bump’ is mirrored in the figures for willingness to pay, so it is possible that we could see further growth in the USA in 2018.

We also asked these same people why they do not currently pay for online news. Across all markets, over half said that this is because so much online news is freely available (54%). This was also the most noticeable sentiment from our focus group participants. This does not necessarily mean, however, that individual brands (such as the public service broadcaster) should be held entirely responsible. Previous research using our 2015 data from six countries showed that consuming news from the public service broadcaster had no negative effect on individual willingness to pay.1

There is so much accessible for free that if you don’t find it on one site you find it on another.

20–34, Spain

For me, with news, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything by not paying for it.

20–34, UK

Much of the discussion around paying for online news assumes that people’s reasons for not paying all revolve around news in some way. Many of them do, but in some cases people are reluctant to pay for reasons that are more general. Around one in five (18%) say they don’t pay because they can’t afford it, and one in ten (11%) say that they don’t like using their bank details online. Around 6% worry that it might be difficult to cancel an ongoing payment, or that making the payment in the first place will simply be too much hassle. These reasons were most commonly given in Mexico (46%), Greece (45%), and Turkey (45%), where nearly half of those not paying say it is at least partly related to factors not specific to news. For others, the money they have already spent on hardware, software, and getting connected creates the feeling that they have paid already.

You have got to pay for it.

I have my limits; I can’t afford that.

They have got to pay their salaries.

I know. I understand that, but I have got to pay my rent.

20–34, USA

It’s like, God, I’ve spent a thousand dollars on electronic devices, can you please give me something for free?

35–54, USA

This year for the first time we place paying for online news in the broader context of paying for online media more generally, particularly music and video. In short, people are more likely to pay for access to online video (e.g. via Netflix) and digital audio (e.g. via Spotify and iTunes) than they are to pay for online news.

However, these averages for all 36 markets obscures the much larger differences we see in English-speaking countries, Nordic countries, and Western Europe, where online music and video services like Spotify and Netflix have a stronger foothold. Here, digital audio and video services tend to be much further ahead. In Eastern Europe and Asia, the gap is smaller, but only because online audio and video are less popular.

The figures for paying for audio and video are skewed towards younger people. The figures for paying for online news are much flatter. This is a powerful corrective to idea that young people are not prepared to pay for online media. Even when it comes to news, younger people are no less likely to be paying than older people. Rather, news publishers have not been quite as successful as other media companies in convincing younger people to part with their money.

We asked our focus groups why they are more willing to pay for digital audio and video. People felt that they simply offer a different experience to news; one that is entertaining, relaxing, or enjoyable. Also, there was a recognition that (unlike news) the content retains its value over time, and isn’t accompanied by a sense of waste if not used every day. Moreover, there was a clearer sense that the companies that provide this service offer something both valuable and unique, and are associated with innovative approaches and new ideas. Crucially, the focus groups also identified that many of these services are built on aggregating content from multiple sources.

Viewed in this way, asking people to pay for online news from a single provider could feel strikingly old-fashioned and out of sync with the experience of multiplicity and choice that people have come to expect from the web.

[Q:] Subscriptions, subscribing to news?

[A:] To only one media outlet, no.

25–34, Spain

What you could do is … if you want the politics subscription you can pay £5 a month and you can have all the politics you can read, or the science subscription … like Now TV has got the entertainment bundle.

25–34, UK

Despite the differences, people who pay for other media online (such as audio and video) are either much more likely to be paying for online news already, or are much more willing to pay in the future. The link is particularly strong in Spain and the USA, where people are five times more likely to be paying for online news if they are paying for other things (when compared to people who have not purchased any online media in the past year). Importantly, this association is present in all of the 36 markets examined, and remains even after controlling for age, gender, education, and interest in news.

  1. Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Paying for Online News: A Comparative Analysis of Six CountriesDigital Journalism 0(0) (2016).