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Younger subscribers: What the future of paying for local news looks like

For several decades now, newspapers have fretted about their aging audience and the challenge of reaching younger readers.

There are promising signs that young people are open to paying for news. Our earlier study of Millennial audiences (age 18 to 34 at the time), found that 40 percent pay for news content.

How do younger subscribers compare and contrast with those who are older when we get into more detail? Do they subscribe for similar or different reasons? How do younger and older readers use the newspaper?

Younger subscribers in the sample tend to be more racially diverse and college educated than older subscribers.

The respondents in the study are older than newspaper subscribers overall, with 93 percent being 40 years old or older.1 Still, even with just 7 percent of the sample under age 40, the study has a sample of 300 people under 40 years of age.

Overall in our sample, the younger subscribers are more likely than older subscribers to be female (52 percent vs. 47 percent), racially diverse (22 percent non-white vs. 10 percent non-white), and college educated (79 percent vs. 66 percent).

The younger group is also much more likely than older adults to identify as Democrats (61 percent vs. 49 percent) and less likely to identify as Republicans (23 percent vs. 37 percent).

The two age groups are similar in terms of income, with about 3 in 4 in each group earning more than $50,000 a year.

Younger subscribers are more likely in urban areas and large metro papers

Subscribers age 18-40 Subscribers age 41 and older
Urbanicity
Urban area 42% 27%
Suburban area 51% 55%
Rural area 7% 18%
Paper size
Small 6% 16%
Mid-size 7% 15%
Small metro 28% 33%
Large metro 59% 36%

Younger subscribers are more likely to prefer digital and to get news on social media

The younger subscribers (40 and under) who responded to our survey still prefer print over digital. But the young are much more digitally inclined (42 percent) than older subscribers (24 percent).

But how they get news differs quite markedly. And the data here offer some potentially challenging findings for television news.

For instance, only a minority of younger recent newspaper subscribers say they get news from television every day (34 percent), compared with 79 percent of those over age 40. Yet, these two age groups are almost identical in their use of computers (desktop or laptop) to get news every day (57 percent and 56 percent), and in their use of radio news (47 percent and 45 percent).

But the data do point toward a growing march toward digital, even among older subscribers.

Young recent subscribers are half as likely to get news daily from print publications, and instead 80 percent use cell phones and 76 percent use social media. While older recent subscribers are more likely to use print every day, half also get news every day on their phones, and a third on a tablet.

Clearly, even for newspaper subscribers, the cell phone is a central part of that digital future.

And an important part of gaining the attention of younger subscribers of the future is to ensure that a publication’s best content, the work that people are likely to notice and want to share, is available for discovery on social platforms.

Age 18-40 Age 41 and older
A cellphone 80% 50%
Social media 76% 44%
A desktop or laptop computer 57% 56%
A radio 47% 45%
A television 34% 79%
A tablet 25% 36%
Paper versions of print publications 24% 56%
Virtual voice assistants 6% 4%
An e-reader 3% 5%

Data Source: Questions: How often, if at all, have you used each device or technology to get news and information in the last week?
These days many people get their news and information from social media. How often do you watch, read, hear, or see news on social media?

Media Insight Project

Younger respondents and older respondents tend to use a newspaper differently before subscribing

There are also some differences in how these two groups interacted prior to subscribing. Older readers are more likely to have used a newspaper’s app or to have signed up for news alerts.

However, younger readers are more likely to have been social media followers of the news organization. Younger future subscribers are also more likely to find the paper on search before subscribing, to discover it through friends and family talking about it, and to read borrowed copies from friends and family.

Age 18-40 Age 41 and older
Regularly visited website 66% 58%
Found content on Google 59% 40%
Read print copies of friends/family 52% 42%
Saw friends share or recommend it 49% 28%
Followed news org on social media 44% 17%
Bought individual print copies 36% 41%
Regularly shared its content 35% 29%
Followed its journalists on social media 32% 13%
Used its coupons 21% 25%
Subscribed to an email newsletter 14% 17%
Used its app 14% 30%
Went to events it organized 10% 9%
Listened to its podcasts/audio 9% 3%
Posted comments 6% 7%
Registered for news alerts 4% 14%

Data Source: Question: Prior to becoming a paying subscriber to [SOURCE], in which of the following ways did you interact with [SOURCE]?

Media Insight Project

There are both similarities and differences in the factors that lead younger and older readers to subscribe

When offered the chance to describe in their own words why they chose to subscribe, both groups are most likely to cite a desire for local news, yet older readers are slightly more likely to offer this reason (31 percent vs. 22 percent).

In contrast, younger readers are more likely than older readers to say they chose to subscribe because of either coupons, supporting journalism, or hitting a paywall.

Age 18-40 Age 41 and older
Local news 22% 31%
Coupons or ads 15% 8%
Discount or promotion 14% 12%
Convenience of print 14% 15%
Support journalism 11% 4%
Paywall or access 8% 2%
Topical focus 7% 12%

Data Source: Question: Describe in your own words why you decided to subscribe to [SOURCE]?

Media Insight Project

Younger subscribers also looked a good deal like older ones when asked about the importance of the background factors that generally led to their subscription. Younger subscribers predominantly cite news about their local community (63 percent vs. 60 percent for older respondents), supporting local journalism (46 percent vs. 30 percent for older subscribers), and noticing a number of interesting articles (45 percent vs. 38 percent for those age 40 and over).

But then, when asked about the specific tipping point that pushed them over the edge to subscribe, 61 percent of younger subscribers mention a discount or promotion, 33 percent say they kept hitting an article limit or paywall, and 25 percent say they wanted coupons to help them save money.

Older subscribers still most often mention a discount or promotion (43 percent) as their trigger to subscribe, but this is less often than younger subscribers. Twenty-one percent also mention coupons. But, 15 percent say recently moving to the area led them to subscribe, and 11 percent say the same about another life change. 

Age 18-40 Age 41 and older
Discount or promotion 61% 43%
Hitting paywall 33% 15%
Wanted coupons 25% 21%
Moving to area 22% 15%
Life change (new job, retiring, graduating) 18% 11%

Data Source: Question: Which, if any, of the following triggered your final decision to subscribe to [SOURCE]?

Media Insight Project

Both younger and older subscribers most often say getting reliable and accurate information, a willingness to admit mistakes, the outlet dealing fairly with all sides, and a desire to be an informed citizen are important reasons they use their newspaper now that they subscribe.

But younger subscribers are more likely than older subscribers to say that feeling good about supporting the news organization and getting an unlimited amount of digital content are benefits of subscribing. Many younger subscribers also say access to print in addition to digital news is among the biggest benefits of their subscription, although fewer of them say this than older subscribers. Yet again, this is a sign that print-oriented subscribers still are increasingly digital users.

Age 18-40 Age 41 and older
Supporting news organization 57% 40%
Unlimited number of digital stories 41% 21%
Access to print in addition to digital 39% 47%
Coupons or discounts 38% 34%

Data Source: Question: Now that you subscribe to [SOURCE], which of the following do you consider the biggest benefit of your subscription? Please select up to three (3).

Media Insight Project

  1. A 2017 Media Insight Project survey of Americans found that 71 percent of newspaper subscribers were age 40 and older.

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