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Paths to Subscription: Why recent subscribers chose to pay for news

This research was conducted by the Media Insight Project — an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research

Funding for the news industry is going through an epochal change, the implications of which cannot be overstated. In the future, virtually all signals suggest less of the revenue will come from advertising and more from consumers paying for news.

The move toward subscriptions will require measuring audiences differently, with analytics that measure deep engagement and not just page views. Publishers will need to segment audiences by their loyalty also and by their eventual likelihood to pay. Perhaps most significantly, the newsroom and business sides of news organizations will be aligned more than before. The move toward subscriptions places the newsroom—and quality content worth paying for—at the center of the business strategy.

To help understand this new landscape, the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, has conducted a series of studies over the last 18 months to understand what moves readers to subscribe.

This latest study may be the largest study ever undertaken of people who have recently subscribed to newspapers. It surveyed people who subscribed in the last three months to 90 local newspapers across the country. The survey of more than 4,100 recent newspaper subscribers captures their motives and mindsets at the time of the decision. The sample was large enough to see differences among large papers and small, reader preferences for digital consumption versus print, Democrats versus Republicans, and a host of other factors.

In this report, we identify nine distinct “paths to subscriptions”—the motives and conditions that together lead a person to subscribe. Some people are looking for coverage of a particular passion topic. Others have subscribed because of a change in their lifestyle. Some want coupons to save them money. Some discovered the paper through social media. Others want to support journalism as an institution. All are subscribers.

The findings reveal opportunities for publishers and also challenges: To understand the paths to subscription and help each reader along his or her journey, to deliver the types of value and engagement that each group desires, to tailor marketing tactics to each group, and to use this framework as a foundation for their own audience research.

Highlights: What motivates new subscribers

Various background factors are preconditions to subscribe
60% want access to local news
40% notice a lot of interesting, useful articles
31% want to support local journalism
But one factor stands out as a common final trigger
45% finally subscribed because of a promotion or a free trial
Those who use a paper before subscribing, do so for a long time
74% who engaged prior to paying used it for at least a few months
After subscribing, quality factors matter for retention
78% value getting reliable, accurate facts
68% value paper dealing fairly with all sides
29% value paper saving them money
People use papers many ways after subscribing
52% use coupons
43% regularly share the paper’s content
18% subscribe to specialized email newsletters

Among the study’s findings:

  • Quality and accuracy matter to nearly every subscriber group, especially after they subscribe. When asked for the most important reasons they use the newspaper, now that they subscribe, people are most likely to cite a publication’s accuracy (78 percent), its willingness to admit mistakes (69 percent), and its dealing fairly with all sides (68 percent) as most important.
  • The findings offer an opportunity and also a warning for publishers. They suggest that cutting back on newsrooms now (as many publishers do to maintain profit margins against declining revenue) imperils any long-term subscription strategy. Publishers may have to accept a smaller, or in some cases no, margin of profit now to invest in the content quality that potential subscribers demand.
  • Regardless of their underlying motivations, many subscribers are triggered by discounts at just the right time. Nearly half of all recent subscribers (45 percent) cited pricing promotions as the immediate trigger, more than double any other factor.
  • Market size matters. There are some important differences between what drives people at small or medium-sized papers and metros (large and small). New subscribers to small papers are more likely than those at large metros to prefer print over digital (85 percent vs. 56 percent) and to subscribe after moving to town (23 percent vs. 13 percent). Subscribers to large metros are more likely than those at small papers to subscribe after noticing a lot of interesting articles (45 percent vs. 30 percent).
  • Print and digital subscribers are different. Digital subscribers in this study tend to be younger, male, and more educated than print readers. Digital readers are more often attracted by good coverage of a particular topic than are print readers (38 percent vs. 25 percent), and by noticing especially useful or interesting content (47 percent vs. 36 percent). Half of digital subscribers are triggered to subscribe by hitting a paywall meter, and they are more likely than print readers to be motivated by a desire to support local journalism (38 percent vs. 29 percent).

Some factors that drive people to subscribe sit in the “background.” They are preconditions that will lead to subscribing eventually, elements such as the degree of interest in news, having noticed a lot of interesting articles, or being worried about the accuracy of other news sources in the community.

Other factors are specific “triggers” that cause someone to finally subscribe. These may or may not be directly related to the background factors. But for different subgroups, these different trigger factors can be far more or less important. For example, among print-focused subscribers, coupons triggered 26 percent, and among digital subscribers, a paywall meter triggered 47 percent.

When asked to volunteer in their own words why they decided to subscribe to a newspaper, the answers echoed the sense that a complex blend of factors are at play. The biggest factor that people mentioned in their own words was a desire to be connected to community.

Top reasons they chose to subscribe
in their own words

Why they subscribed… Percent
Access to local news 30%
Convenience of print/home delivery 15%
Promotion/discount 12%
Topical focus 12%
Trust/quality 9%

Data Source: Question: Describe in your own words why you decided to subscribe to [NAME OF NEWSPAPER]? [Open end, coded up to three responses]

Media Insight Project

Combined, all these different findings suggest that publishers need to understand audiences at a much deeper level than they did when the model was maximizing the number of people who encountered the product in order to maximize advertising.

To conduct this survey, we partnered with 90 different newspapers across the country from 12 different newspaper companies. The publishers ranged from some of the largest newspaper chains in the country to smaller companies with a single paper. Each publisher provided contact information for all people who began subscribing to their papers between August 1 and October 31, 2017. All recent subscribers with a valid email address received an email invitation to complete the survey online, and 4,113 completed the survey between November 9 and December 13, 2017. We used the email addresses only for the purpose of this study, and we made sure to protect the confidentiality of all potential respondents.

This convenience sample includes many recent newspaper subscribers from various size papers across the country; however, the findings of the study might not apply to all subscribers or newspapers. The newspapers that participated in the study could be different in some ways from newspapers that did not, and people who completed the interview could be different in some ways than those who declined to respond. Appendix 1 provides a more detailed look at the demographics and news behavior of the respondents.

The sections that follow will explore some themes in detail. First we examine what makes people willing to subscribe, what triggers their conversions, and what happens immediately after subscribing. Then we break down differences between print and digital readers, young and old, big and small markets, Republicans and Democrats. Finally, we dive deep into publisher strategies for each of the nine different paths to subscription.

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