Paying for Online News More Popular, but Will It Be Enough to Save Journalism?

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With few exceptions, news organizations have offered online news for free in a push to increase scale and drive up advertising rates. As a result, most people think news ought to be free.

In the United States, a willingness to pay for news has jumped from just 9% last year to 16% this year. The increase is almost entirely due to younger readers and those whose political beliefs tending toward the left.

Still, the percentage of U.S. consumers who pay for news trails the number willing to pay for digital video services like Netflix (33%) or digital audio services (22%).

The latest Reuters/Oxford University survey of news consumers indicates that the percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 who are willing to pay for news has risen from 4% in 2016 to 18% this year. Among 25- to 35-year-olds, the percentage has jumped from 8% to 20%.

Among those who identify themselves as leaning to the political left, the percentage is up from 15% to 29%. The percentage of self-identified centrists willing to pay for news has risen from 9% to 15% and for those who lean right, the percentage rose from 7% to 11%.

Some 29% of U.S. news consumers say they are willing to pay for news in order to help fund journalism, more than double the global rate of 13% who say the same thing. Globally, the most prevalent reason (30%) for paying is to get access to news from a smartphone or tablet.

A large majority (79%) of U.S. survey respondents said they were very or somewhat unlikely ever to pay for online news compared to 90% of German respondents and 86% of U.K. respondents. Over half (54%) said they don’t currently pay for news because so much news is available free.

Once again, those willing to pay are younger: 31% of respondents from all countries between the ages of 18 and 24 now pay for digital video, 25% pay for digital audio and 13% pay for online news. A full third of respondents between the ages of 25 and 34 also pay for digital video, 24% pay for digital audio and 17% pay for online news. Payers for all three services drop off sharply until just 14% of respondents older than 55 pay for digital video, 8% pay for digital audio and 12% pay for online news.

Print advertising revenue has dropped 63% in U.S. newspapers, from $49 billion in 2006 to just $18 billion last year, according to a report from Pew Research. Online advertising is unlikely ever to make up that loss, so publishers are being more or less forced to increase subscriber numbers. Accomplishing that when so many consumers think that news should be free may not be impossible, but it certainly won’t be easy.