Some stats and figures stick in the mind. For publishers, the fact that over 50 percent of adults in the U.S. this year are still paying for news products will come as a relief – but should that figure dip below that magic halfway mark the sentiment might well change, particularly since last year’s Reuters Institute ‘Digital News Report’ found that less than a tenth of people in the US are paying for news online.
But as the Media Insight Project’s introduction to its ‘Paying for News’ report explains: “The future of journalism will increasingly depend on consumers paying for the news directly, as content distributors like Facebook and Google take up the lion’s share of digital advertising dollars.” The whole report is vital reading, but for the time-poor members of our audience, we’ve pulled out six key takeaways to help you make sense of who is paying for news – and why.
Newspapers don’t dominate the paid-for landscape
As we also found in our Paid Content Strategies report, people don’t just pay for news content in a print form. Instead, the Media Insight Project’s report found that of the 54 percent of Americans who pay for news, 54 percent pay for a subscription to a print newspaper. Those subscribers might be considered super-subscribers, given that they also subscribe to other products:
“Just 15 percent of newspaper subscribers say they pay for only one type of source. Fifty-five percent of newspaper subscribers pay for anywhere from two to four kinds of publications (i.e., print newspaper, digital newspaper, print magazine, etc.). And 30 percent of newspaper subscribers say they pay for five or more kinds of publications.”
Additionally, those who pay for news are much more likely to check those sources more frequently: ” all, nearly 8 in 10 of those who pay for news—77 percent—say they get it several times a day or more. But most nonpayers also are frequent news consumers. Among nonpayers, 56 percent get news multiple times a day”.
57 percent of payers subscribe to the print version of a magazine. For digital pureplays, however, the situation looks less rosy, with only 22 percent of people being willing to pay for access to a digital-only news site, and 16 percent for access to a digital-only magazine site.
Don’t underestimate the value of a super-subscriber
Those subscribers who don’t pay for access to a print publication are far less likely to pay for more than one news source. 58 percent of those people say they only subscribe to one.
The implication is that a relatively small number of people are disproportionately important for publishers of news in print. That’s worrying because, as the research makes clear, that group generally tends to be older: 70 percent of adults aged 65 or over pay for at least one print product, while that number falls by age demographic, until only 46 percent of those aged 18-34 pay for a print product.
And while if you squint that might look like people become more likely to pay for print as they ageand thus that everything’s fine, the reality is that these are attitudinal differences and the age of the super-subscriber will likely die off with the older generation. The report does note that overall the data runs counter to the idea that it is only the older generation who is likely to pay for news…:
“Indeed, many adults of all ages, races, education levels, and political affiliations pay for a news source. In all, as noted above, close to 4 in 10 of the youngest adults age 18 to 34 in America (37 percent) say they pay for news sources of some kind. Of those, 46 percent pay for a newspaper subscription.”
… but concludes that “in other words, any forward looking subscription strategy has to lean more digital, even if the current subscriber base is in print.”
Friends and family networks
News publishers will wade through hell or high water to attract new subscribers, and the results of the MIP’s study demonstrate the viability of some of their endeavours. For instance, 37 percent of people who end up paying for a subscription did so because of a discount or promotion for the product. In our Paid Content Strategies report, we found that a number of the publishers we surveyed were doubling down on those endeavours as a result.
Similarly, 17 percent of respondents explained that they began subscribing because they hit the cap on free articles they could read per month, suggesting that the metered approach does have some tangible success.
However, that relies upon those users valuing the content enough to hit that cap and to continue paying once the discount period had been passed. And, tellingly, the two top reasons given for subscribing were outside the remit of the commercial teams whose job it is to actually sell those subscriptions.
The most important reason given for subscribing was that the publication had significant editorial expertise in that area:
“At the top, more than 4 in 10 say they were looking for a news source that covers a particular topic, which highlights the opportunity for news outlets that focus on a particular issue or a handful of identifiable franchise topics. Coverage expertise, in other words, is a major factor.”
Similarly, around 40 percent of people sign up for a subscription because their friends or family have a subscription to the same product. Word of mouth remains a powerful factor in influencing people – and it’s something that media companies only have very limited control over.
Reasons for retention
A huge challenge for news publications, both print, digital and everything in-between (though only 4 percent of respondees described themselves as a subscriber to a hybrid model), is in reducing subscriber churn. There’s an inherent fragility to people’s willingess to re-up subscriptions, and there’s any number of reasons why people might choose not to resubscribe.
NYT doesn’t release un-subscription numbers, but says just 6% of people canceling in the past three weeks cited Bret Stephens as the reason.
It’s worth bearing in mind, then, that as much effort needs to go into retaining existing subscribers as into recruiting new ones, and reinforcing the idea that the value of the subscription is worth it. That has implications for publishers because…
Digital subscribers are more grateful
Despite the noted attraction of a print product, the study found that subscribers to digital products actually thought they were getting better value than those who subscribed to print products:
“Digitally oriented subscribers are more likely than print payers to say the subscription price they pay is small (67 percent vs. 56 percent). Roughly 1 in 3 digital and print subscribers say it is a moderate cost. Less than 1 in 10 of either group think the cost is significant to them.
“As for the flip side of price, the value they get from paying for news, here digital subscribers are more likely to say the source is a very good value for the price (48 percent vs. 32 percent of print subscribers). Print subscribers are more likely to say it is a fair value.”
That isn’t necessarily something that publishers would expect, but regardless, it’s clear that defending the value of a subscription is absolutely vital.
There are viable alternatives to paid-for news products
It’s an unhappy fact (for publishers, if not for consumers) that the internet has enabled a vast promulgation of news sources, and some business models that allow some publishers to give their content away for free. Obviously there are drawbacks to that, almost too many to count, but the fact is that there are free news sources out there, and consumers aren’t ignorant of that fact.
The MIP report notes that of the respondents that don’t get news from a specific paid-for news site, the vast majority consume news from a variety of traditional and digital sources. They also note that, given the ubiquity of social networks, many people choose to get their news from there:
“In this format, 54 percent say they have used social media sites for news. About 5 percent of respondents, 134 people, say yes to the general question about getting news on social media, but did not identify a specific platform in the earlier section. (It is the same for payers).
“About a third of nonpayers also get news and information from a news app, go to online-only news sources, and get news from broadcast television or newspapers.”
Notably, 37 percent of people said they got news – for free – from a dedicated news app, compared to 32 percent who got it from a free newspaper product (I suspect that would be very different in the UK where free papers like the Metro have a much greater presence in the overall mix).
However the report also makes clear that non-payers for news are interested in the same topics as those who do pay, with minor variances. For instance, while more payers are interested in sports content than non-payers (26 percent to 21 percent respectively), only 23 percent of payees were interested in crime and public safety stories compared to 33 percent of non-payees.
Ultimately, there are manifold reasons why someone might choose to subscribe to a news source. The reality is that attracting new subscribers is likely to become even more necessary for publishers in the next five years as the digital advertising doldrums and the long, slow print advertising slide continue.