Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

How subscriber motivations vary in big and small markets

The survey featured new subscribers from 90 newspapers, which ranged from small papers to some of the largest papers in the country. This wide array of newspapers allows for an examination of whether the paths to subscription vary depending on the circulation size of a newspaper, as circulation size is often related to both news coverage and business practices.

In order to assess similarities and differences based on newspaper size, the analysis focuses on four types of newspapers: small papers (circulation of 50,000 or less), mid-sized papers (circulation of 50,001-99,999), small metro papers (circulation of 100,000-199,999), and large metros (circulation of 200,000 or more).

Subscribers of larger newspapers tend to be younger and are more likely to have a college degree

Before comparing the paths to subscription for each newspaper size, it is important to recognize the demographic differences among survey respondents from each type of newspaper. Differences between different size newspapers’ subscriber attitudes and behaviors are likely a function of both the demographic makeup of their subscribers and of the size of the paper.

In terms of age, 12 percent of respondents from large metro papers are 40 years old or younger compared with 7 percent from small metros, 4 percent from mid-sized papers, and 3 percent from small papers. Likewise, 73 percent of respondents from large metros have a bachelor’s degree compared with 62 percent from small metros, 66 percent from mid-sized papers, and 63 percent from small papers.

About 7 in 10 subscribers from each paper size have household incomes of more than $50,000, but there is some variation in this proportion when looking at respondents from large metros (77 percent), small metros (71 percent), mid-sized papers (69 percent), and small papers (66 percent). 

There is also variation in partisanship with respondents from the various paper sizes. Large metros tend to have more Democrats than Republicans (59 percent vs. 29 percent), as do mid-sized papers (56 percent vs. 27 percent). In contrast, there is a relatively even split between Democrats and Republicans among respondents of both small metros (41 percent vs. 44 percent) and small papers (41 percent vs. 41 percent).

Subscribers of large papers are the most likely to have used the newspaper before subscribing and are least likely to get news in print

Subscribers from large and small papers tend to follow news in similar ways, but there are a few differences in regards to format and using the paper before subscribing.

Small paper subscribers are more likely to be heavy print users. Seventy-three percent of small paper subscribers say they are daily print users compared to 65 percent from mid-sized papers, 55 percent from small metros, and 42 percent from large metros. Likewise, subscribers to large metros are less likely than subscribers to other papers to get a print newspaper (64 percent vs. 84 percent for small metro, 92 percent for mid-sized, and 91 percent for small paper).

However, large metro subscribers are notably more likely than readers of smaller papers to have used the paper before they subscribed (46 percent compared with 29 percent from small metros, 19 percent from mid-sized, and 24 percent from small papers).

Respondents from large and small papers cite different reasons for subscribing

Several of the factors respondents say were important before subscribing tend to vary based on newspaper size.

Wanting access to news about their community is more likely to be important for subscribers from small and mid-sized papers than those from small or large metros.

When it comes to background factors for subscribing, respondents from small papers tend to cite moving to the area more often than those from large metros. Respondents from large metros are the most likely to say an important factor was noticing a lot of interesting and useful articles.

Access to coupons tends to be a more important factor for subscribers to small metros than those from large metros.

Small Mid-sized Small metro Large metro
Want access to local news 72% 69% 59% 53%
Notice useful/interesting articles 30% 37% 36% 45%
Moving to area 23% 18% 17% 13%
Want access to coupons 18% 20% 26% 16%

Data Source: Question: How important was each of these factors as you considered subscribing?

Media Insight Project

Discounts and paywalls are more likely to be a trigger for respondents from large papers than small papers

Newspaper size also correlates to the trigger factors that ultimately led respondents to subscribe.

In particular, respondents from large metro papers are more likely than other respondents to have decided to subscribe because they saw a discount or hit a paywall. Large metro papers also are somewhat more likely to benefit from people motivated by recent verbal attacks on the press, though for all papers these are smaller numbers. Big metro subscribers also are more likely to say they had just read an article they really liked that led them to subscribe.

In contrast, respondents from small papers are most likely to report their trigger was recently moving to the area (23 percent vs. 17 percent for midsized, 15 percent for small metros, and 13 percent for large metros).

Small Mid-sized Small metro Large metro
Seen a discount 44% 36% 41% 52%
Hit a paywall 7% 4% 12% 28%
Motivated by verbal attacks on press 6% 6% 6% 10%
Read an article that led to subscribe 5% 4% 5% 9%
Recently moved to the area 23% 17% 15% 13%

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

Media Insight Project

Respondents from larger papers are more likely to follow national news, while respondents from small papers are more likely to follow local news

Newspaper size is also connected to the topics subscribers tend to follow most closely. As one might expect, large metro subscribers tend to follow more national news, while small paper subscribers tend to follow more local news.

In a similar vein, large metro subscribers are more likely than subscribers to smaller papers to follow national politics, professional sports, and arts and culture.

At the same time, subscribers to small papers are more likely than subscribers at larger papers to follow news about their neighborhood.

Small Mid-sized Small metro Large metro
National politics 31% 34% 32% 40%
Professional sports 12% 19% 20% 29%
Arts and culture 12% 12% 12% 17%
Neighborhood/town 34% 21% 21% 14%

Data Source: Question: Here are some common news and information topics. Which of these news topics do you follow most often or closely using [SOURCE]?

Media Insight Project

These differences may seem to reflect the expected when it comes to different sized papers. But we believe it would be a mistake to think the implication is that the task of smaller papers is easier or even more print focused.

Indeed, inevitably the cost structure of smaller newspapers is still heavily tied to the cost of printing and delivery, and the future involves reducing those costs—not simply continuing to reduce the newsroom. The differences between the appeal of small papers and the motivations of their readers, to the contrary, may point to alliances between large and small publishers and perhaps exploring bundling subscription options so that readers can get the combined benefits of both kinds of publications. Increasingly, the data suggest that, instead of seeing their business models as different, papers of different sizes could work together through subscription and technological alliances in ways that could be beneficial to both.

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

The American Press Institute

Our mission

We help transform news organizations for an audience-centered future.

Our programs for publishers focus on four things:

  • 1. Understand your audience
  • 2. Get your audience to pay
  • 3. Transform your culture
  • 4. Do your best journalism
  • Find out more about API »

API solutions for publishers

What we can do for you

API offers a suite of original tools and services for solving the biggest challenges in news:

  • Decide what beats to cover and how
  • Identify and develop the skills you need
  • Assess and improve your culture
  • Drive more reader revenue
  • Drive loyalty through accountability journalism
  • Make analytics work for you
  • Contact us to find out how »