Paying for News and the Limits of Subscription

This year’s survey finds only a small increase in the numbers paying for any online news. However, growth in the number of paid subscribers for publications like the New York Times, the FT, and Mediapart, as well as the success of alternative models like the Guardian’s membership scheme, have demonstrated that reader revenues provide an alternative to the digital advertising most online news media have historically relied on – advertising that is primarily going to large platform companies.

Yet, difficult challenges remain. Some in the news business worry that, even though subscriber numbers remain low by some standards, we might already be close to reaching an upper limit. Others fear the emergence of ‘subscription fatigue’, where people become frustrated by being asked to pay for multiple services separately. Will only the largest and most prominent news outlets survive, and how will they fare when forced to compete with entertainment services like Netflix and Spotify?

For those outside the news business, the issues are different. In a world of hard paywalls, will a sharp divide between those who are willing and able to pay for online news, and those who are not, create information inequalities? Will we start to see growing differences between the information-rich and the information-poor? In many ways these are questions about the future, but the data we have now can provide an indication of what might lie ahead.

The Move to Ongoing Payments

Although there has been only a small increase in the numbers paying for any online news, one positive development is that most payments are now ‘ongoing’ payments. This includes news access that is bundled with a subscription to the print product, or something different like cable or broadband, as well as straightforward subscriptions that allow people to go beyond the paywall. At the same time, one-off payments have stagnated, despite the introduction of micropayment platforms like Blendle.

This has been encouraging for many news organisations worried about their digital future. But it is important to keep in mind that the numbers of people paying for news subscriptions is still low – lower than the number that currently pay for print (either through single purchases or subscriptions) in many cases.

Upper Limits for Ongoing Subscriptions

Why do only a minority pay for online news? In our 2017 report we explored the individual motivations, but willingness to pay for news is also determined by the structure of the news media environment. Our previous research has shown that the majority of online news in Europe – except for that offered by national legacy newspaper publishers – is free at the point of consumption (Cornia et al. 2017). If most online news is free, payment figures will likely always be low.

Another way of approaching this issue is to ask roughly how often people click on a link, expecting to read an article, and instead find that they are asked to pay for a subscription. The next chart shows the proportion of online news users that encounter a paywall less than once a week – a group that currently has little or no motivation to start paying. It is probably no coincidence that in countries like Norway and Sweden, where paying for news is most widespread, just 20% and 25% respectively do not regularly see paywalls for news. In much of Western Europe and the US, the figure is around 40%. In Japan, where most news is free due to the popularity of aggregators, 60% regularly consume news without bumping into a paywall.

Subscription Fatigue?

This gives a sense of the upper limit for the size of the group that will pay. But for some, the question of whether people will ever pay for an online news subscription has evolved into a question about how many subscriptions people will pay for. As stated in the Executive Summary, for the time being, the answer appears to be ‘one’. The average (median) number of news subscriptions per person among those that pay is one in almost every country.

But perhaps more importantly, the average almost never exceeds one, regardless of what group you look at. Even among those who are most interested in news, the wealthiest, or the most educated, most people only pay money to one news organisation. This point matters because, depending on the way subscriptions are distributed among different publishers, it may mean that only a small handful of those that are currently available will be able to attract enough paying subscribers to survive.

It is also important to keep in mind that news is just one of many forms of online media that people are now being asked to subscribe to. Some worry that news is expected to compete with online video streaming like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, music streaming services like Spotify, as well as a range of other subscription offers.

This is amplified by concerns over what some call ‘subscription fatigue’ – the idea that people are becoming frustrated with being asked to pay separately for lots of different services online. If subscription fatigue does start to set in, there are signs that news might be badly affected. We asked people what online media subscription they would pick if they could have only one for the next 12 months. Just 12% said they would pick news, compared to 28% that would choose a video streaming service like Netflix, and nearly one-third (31%) who would pick nothing. This means that, hypothetically, over three-quarters (76%) of people that currently pay for online news would stop paying if they would only have one online media subscription for the next year.

That number is even higher among younger people. They are less likely to say they would not pay for anything, but also less likely to say they would keep news specifically if forced to choose. Just 7% of under 45s would pick news over everything else for the next year, compared to 15% of those 45 and over. It is clear from the next chart that news is a more important part of the mix for older users, but also that younger people value a broader range of online media, including gaming and dating services.

Paywalls and Information Inequalities

Subscription fatigue, and the limits of pay models for news more broadly, will continue to pose a serious challenge for the news business. Meanwhile, others are concerned about whether the continued growth of pay models will create an unequal news environment, where those willing to pay for news get good-quality information, and those that are not will make do with news designed to harvest people’s attention.

This is sometimes described using the metaphors like the ‘two-tier news environment’. Our data show this can be a little misleading, however, because it implies a clear separation between paying users and those that rely on free sources. In fact, because they have much higher levels of interest in the news, paying users consume news from both sides of the paywall – and in most cases are heavier users of free sources than those who don’t pay. The chart provides evidence of this pattern in the UK.

Of course, it could still be the case that people who rely on free sources are on average consuming lower quality news. Making judgements about news quality is always challenging, but here we can use our brand trust scores (see Country Pages section) as an imperfect proxy in the absence of a widely agreed-upon alternative measure. If we compare the average brand trust score of the news diets of those who pay with those who don’t, we see almost no differences – even across countries with very different media systems.

This is partly because those that pay continue to consume online news from sources that most people do not trust. But it is also likely to be due to the fact that many countries – even those such as Norway where paywalls are common – still have trusted sources that are free at the point of consumption. Indeed, the most trusted news source in many European countries is the public broadcaster, which is often heavily used by payers and non-payers alike.

This may be why the USA – which has relatively weak public service media – was the only country we analysed where the news diets of those that do not pay have on average a significantly lower trust score (-0.14 on the 0–10 scale) than for those who pay (grey shading indicates no significant difference).

Indeed, if we remove public service media from the analysis, we see that a significant gap emerges in Norway (-0.03), Denmark (-0.15), and, most noticeably of all, the UK (-0.23). This could be read to suggest that the reason we do not currently see large differences between the news diets of those who pay and those who don’t is because they are smoothed out by the fact that many of those that don’t pay can get trusted news from public service media. This suggests that, as paywalls become more commonplace, public service media will be especially important for keeping information inequalities low.