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Are newspaper subscribers more knowledgeable or approving of the news media?

Newspaper subscribers hold more positive views of many specific types of media — and have an easier time deciphering news from opinion — than do non-subscribers.

Overall, 29 percent of Americans subscribe to a print or digital version of a newspaper. These subscribers tend to have more positive views than non‑subscribers on many components of the press, including journalists as a group (51 percent vs. 37 percent), news organizations in general (48 percent vs. 32 percent), public radio (56 percent vs. 37 percent), PBS (62 percent vs. 49 percent), and individual journalists they follow (55 percent vs. 38 percent).

As for newspapers specifically, subscribers are more likely than non‑subscribers to assign positive ratings to both national papers (54 percent vs. 34 percent) and their local newspaper (61 percent vs. 41 percent).

Those who pay for a newspaper tend to think it is easier to differentiate opinion and fact in some types of media. In particular, majorities of subscribers say it is easy to distinguish the content in national or local papers, while fewer than half of non‑subscribers say the same.

News source Subscribers Non-subscribers
Local newspaper 70% 49%
National newspapers 59% 43%
PBS 65% 52%
Public radio 56% 43%

Data Source: Question: “Many news organizations produce opinion content as well as report the news. How easy or difficult is it for you to tell the difference between the opinion content and news reporting in each of the following?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

Subscribers also report a better understanding of a few journalistic terms than non‑subscribers. Newspaper subscribers are more likely to say they are familiar with the term “editorial” versus a “news story,” “op‑ed,” or “attribution.” On its face, that difference may make sense — many of these terms have their roots in physical print papers. Still, even among subscribers, knowledge is relatively low. For example, fewer than half of subscribers are familiar with op‑eds (43 percent) or attribution (41 percent).

Journalistic term Subscribers Non-subscribers
Difference between editorials and news 62% 39%
What an op-ed is 43% 22%
What attribution means 41% 26%

Data Source: Question: “Next is a list of different terms or concepts that sometimes appear in journalism and media but may or may not be familiar to most people. How familiar are you with each term or concept?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

At the same time, subscribers look similar to non‑subscribers in their understanding of what anonymous sources are. Similar proportions have the same understanding of how journalists’ use anonymous sources — that journalists know a source’s identity and verify their information, but do not use their name.

This is no guarantee that explaining themselves better will help news organizations win over more subscribers. But given that even current subscribers think the industry could do a far better job of explaining their practices — and the startling finding that journalists themselves think they do a poor job of explaining themselves while expecting that the public doesn’t understand — the findings clearly indicate that journalists should do far more to increase news media literacy.

While subscribers are more likely to think the media protects democracy, they agree the industry is headed in the wrong direction

Subscribers and non‑subscribers hold similar views on a number of general questions about the news media. In particular, they align when asked about general levels of trust. They also hold similar views of the ideological makeup of the media, with 45 percent of subscribers and 46 percent of non‑subscribers saying it is just about right. Although subscribers are more likely to view the news media as protecting democracy (38 percent vs. 24 percent), they still see flaws in the industry, despite paying for a news product. Majorities of subscribers and non‑subscribers alike say that the news media is headed in the wrong direction (54 percent vs. 58 percent).

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