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Print vs. digital subscribers: Demographic differences and paths to subscription

Overall, 58 percent of subscribers describe themselves as primarily print-oriented, and 28 percent say they are primarily digital. Among just newspaper subscribers, even more (75 percent) describe themselves as print-oriented. But these numbers look very different when we break people down by demographic groups.

Among those who pay, Hispanics are particularly likely to use primarily a digital version (45 percent) compared with 34 percent of African Americans and 23 percent of whites.

And the age differences between print and digital payers are striking. Older adults are much more likely to pay for print over digital.

Adults age 65 and older who pay for news are five times more likely to buy print than digital (72 percent vs. 14 percent).

By contrast, younger adults age 18 to 34 are equally likely to pay for print or digital (42 percent in both camps).

In other words, any forward looking subscription strategy has to lean more digital, even if the current subscriber base is in print.

But that is only the beginning of why digital approaches make sense even in the short term.

18-34 year olds 35-49 year olds 50-64 year olds 65 and older
Print 42% 49% 64% 72%
Digital 42% 34% 25% 14%
Print and digital equally 5% 6% 3% 3%

Data Source: Question: Next, we are interested in whether you paid to use any media in the last year. For each of the following types of media, please indicate whether you personally have a subscription or pay for it on a regular basis, or not.

Media Insight Project

18-34 year olds 35-49 year olds 50-64 year olds 65 and older
Print 47% 67% 82% 88%
Digital 45% 25% 15% 10%
Print and digital equally 5% 7% 3% 2%

Data Source: Question: Next, we are interested in whether you paid to use any media in the last year. For each of the following types of media, please indicate whether you personally have a subscription or pay for it on a regular basis, or not.

Media Insight Project

Digital subscribers are much more likely to have started using a source recently. About 1 in 3 digital subscribers say they began paying for the source less than three months ago. Only 7 percent of print subscribers are such recent customers.

Most print subscribers (53 percent), on the other hand, have had their subscriptions five years or longer. Only 19 percent of digital subscribers fit in that group.

Digital payers Print payers
3 months or less 31% 7%
4 months to a year 27% 15%
2 to 4 years 18% 23%
5+ years 19% 53%

Data Source: Question: How long have you been paying for [PAID SOURCE]?

Media Insight Project

Are digital subscribers motivated to pay for different reasons than print subscribers? For the most part, the two groups are moved by the same factors. Quality and price, for instance, are key elements that trigger people to subscribe, whether a consumer is getting a print or a digital subscription. The perception that a news outlet is good at covering a particular topic and a discounted subscription promotion are among the two top reasons for both groups as well.

But digital subscribers are more likely than print subscribers to also say they started to pay because they noticed the publication on social media (25 percent vs. 8 percent). Digital subscribers are also more likely to say they were hitting the maximum amount of content they could get for free (29 percent vs. 12 percent).

How important is the idea of the pay meter counting down—and the threat of losing access each month—in persuading a user to become a subscriber? The data suggests it has its limits even for potential digital subscribers. To begin with, meter alerts rank fourth among reasons for paying (out of eight queried), with about the same number as those who say they began to notice the news source in their social media stream. And while 29 percent of digital subscribers say they noticed they were hitting their limit, the flip side is 7 out of 10 don’t cite that as a factor. In other words, other elements of reaching digital subscribers are more important than meter warnings. They are simply part of a suite of elements—along with the coverage of a particular topic or promotions—that matter when trying to persuade potential subscribers to pay.

Print payers Digital payers
I was looking for a news source that covers a particular topic/issue 41% 47%
My friends or family used it 45% 35%
There was a discount or promotion for it 39% 35%
I was hitting the maximum amount of content I could see for free 12% 29%
I noticed it on social media 8% 25%
My personal situation changed and I now have more time to use the paid content 18% 24%
My financial situation changed and I can now afford to pay for it 16% 20%
I got it at work and then started paying for it myself 11% 12%

Data Source: Question: What factors helped lead you to start paying for [PAID SOURCE]?

Media Insight Project

Print versus digital subscriber engagement

Are there differences in the ways subscribers use news in print versus digital?

In many ways, news consumption is similar across formats. The differences that do exist are largely those one might expect based on technology.

As an example, the majority of print-oriented subscribers say they use the coupons (51 percent) and a similar number (55 percent) are saving copies of the paper for use later.

But it isn’t as though digitally oriented subscribers don’t use coupons as well; 15 percent do, and even more (21 percent) save copies for later.

Print-oriented subscribers have digital behavior, too. Fully 38 percent of subscribers who describe themselves as primarily print users also visit the source’s website.

And the findings show that the sharing of news is not something that began with the web, email, or social media. Fifty-five percent of print-oriented subscribers—as many as use coupons—share content with others.

Sharing is high among all age groups, though it is highest among the oldest adults. Sixty-three percent of print subscribers age 65 and older share content compared with 58 percent of those age 50-64, 49 percent of those age 30-49, and 38 percent of those age 18-34.

What distinguishes digitally oriented subscribers?

They engage with publishers in multiple ways for one thing. For instance, among those who prefer digital, 61 percent visit the website, 49 percent use the app, and 43 percent share content with others. Digital subscribers are also more likely than print-oriented subscribers to sign up for alerts or email newsletters and to follow a publication on social media.

Digital subscribers are also more likely than print-oriented subscribers to sign up for alerts or email newsletters and to follow a publication on social media.

Some of the differences between print and digitally oriented subscribers have to do with the convenience of digital. Digital payers are significantly more likely than print payers, for example, to use their favored source multiple times a day (28 percent vs. 5 percent).

All this has implications for how publishers should serve digital subscribers. A significant number of digital subscribers likely want the news updated regularly. This may also be true for print-oriented readers. Indeed, fully 77 percent of subscribers who turn to their favorite source mainly in print say they get news multiple times a day (but just 5 percent do so using their favored source). That number is virtually identical to the number of digitally oriented subscribers (78 percent) who usually get news multiple times a day.

For both groups, print and digital subscribers, social media is a major part of this frequent news acquisition. Fully 73 percent of news subscribers now say they get news from social media.

And it is worth repeating that many of these activities are not exclusive for either those who prefer digital or print, as many payers can access both formats. Remember, 4 in 10 print subscribers still go to the website; 2 in 10 follow it on social media. Conversely, 1 in 10 people who prefer digital use coupons from their source, and 2 in 10 save copies.

Print payers Digital payers
Visit its website 38% 61%
Use its app 13% 49%
Regularly share its content with others 55% 43%
Follow it on social media 18% 36%
Subscribe to its push notifications, text messages, or email news alerts 10% 33%
Subscribe to an email newsletter 9% 27%
Save print copies to read later or share with others 55% 21%
Use the coupons 51% 15%

Data Source: Question: In which of the following ways do you interact with [PAID SOURCE]? Do you …?

Media Insight Project

If there is a fair amount of overlap in the behavior of print and digital subscribers, do the two groups differ in what they say they value about their subscriptions?

Here again, digital and print subscribers are more similar than different. They both tend to value a variety of aspects about their favorite publications rather than just one or two. They both like having access to content nonsubscribers cannot get (37 percent for digital and 39 percent for print). And they both feel good about contributing to the news organization (33 percent for digital vs. 25 percent for print).

And are print- and digitally oriented subscribers different in the basic question we asked of all news consumers: why they gravitate to a particular news source in the first place? No. When it comes to how they use the news and why they get it, print and digital subscribers look very similar.

They both think it’s very important that the publication they pay for be good at covering an issue or topic they care about; they both think the news helps them stay informed and be a better citizen. The only significant difference between print and digital subscribers is that print subscribers are more likely to put a higher value on the news source being enjoyable or entertaining (46 percent vs. 33 percent).

Preferences between print and digital versions of subscription

We were also curious how many people today now consider themselves both print and digital subscribers fairly equally, without a clear preference. As we noted in the overview, that group—which might be called the blended news subscriber—is very small. Overall, only 4 percent of subscribers put themselves in that camp; among just newspaper subscribers, the rate is the same (4 percent).

Five percent of print payers say it is very or extremely likely they would transition to a digital-only subscription, 14 percent say moderately likely, and 79 percent say not too likely or not at all likely. Print payers age 65 and older tend to be more certain than younger adults that they won’t switch to digital-only (85 percent), yet 69 percent of those age 18-34 still say they are not too likely to switch either.

Those numbers suggest that publishers thinking of leaning more heavily on subscription revenue from print heritage media, particularly newspapers, will likely find their audience base continuing to want print for as long as possible.

What is it these two groups like most about their preferred format?

The print-oriented readers, in rank order, find print easier to read (64 percent), feel like they get (or maybe notice) more news in print (38 percent), like the printed coupons (30 percent), and like saving print copies to read later (29 percent).

These preferences among the print-oriented vary somewhat by age.

The older people are, the more likely they are to say they find print easier to read: 61 percent of those age 35-49, 68 percent of those age 50-64, and 71 percent of those 65 and older like the ease of print. But a substantial minority of 18-34 year-old subscribers (44 percent) agree. By contrast, the youngest adults are most likely to say print is less expensive than digital (22 percent compared with 7 percent of those 35-49 years old, 8 percent of those 50-64 years old, and 6 percent of those 65 and older).

And what makes digital subscribers prefer that format? The top reason these subscribers say they prefer digital is they can access content anywhere (64 percent). But a substantial minority of digital subscribers also say they think digital is easier to read (39 percent). Almost as many say they prefer digital because it’s less expensive (35 percent) and the content is more frequently updated (33 percent).

Digital payers feel they get more value than print payers

Most people who pay for news think journalism is a good value, but the rate to which they say so does vary whether they are a print oriented or digitally oriented subscriber even though digital is an arena where more content is free. Digitally oriented subscribers are more likely than print payers to say the subscription price they pay is small (67 percent vs. 56 percent). Roughly 1 in 3 digital and print subscribers say it is a moderate cost. Less than 1 in 10 of either group think the cost is significant to them.

As for the flip side of price, the value they get from paying for news, here digital subscribers are more likely to say the source is a very good value for the price (48 percent vs. 32 percent of print subscribers). Print subscribers are more likely to say it is a fair value.

Digital payers Print payers
Very good value 48% 32%
Fair value 36% 52%
Somewhat or very overpriced 16% 16%

Data Source: Question: Think about your satisfaction with [PAID SOURCE] given the price you pay for it. Which statement comes closest to your opinion? It is a very good value for the price. It is a fair value for what it gives me. It is somewhat overpriced and not a good value. It is very overpriced compared to the value it gives me.

Media Insight Project

Payers and nonpayers engage with news on social media

Some may think social media is a special challenge for publishers—that the people who encounter their content through platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram will never become subscribers.

The findings here suggest that that is an oversimplification—and one that may lead publishers to miss an important opportunity.

To begin with, subscribers are just as likely as nonsubscribers to follow a publication on social media. What’s more, subscribers are even more likely than others to share content.

So contrary to discounting social media as part of a subscription strategy, the opposite may be true. Engaging with one’s most loyal consumers on social media, the data suggests, is an important way of expanding one’s audience by having loyal users share and endorse a publisher’s content. In effect, publications should work hard to empower their subscribers on social media to become their ambassadors and marketers.

The key challenge for publishers may be to have the capacity to know whether the person who is arriving through Facebook might be the same person who is arriving on a different occasion to their homepage, perhaps on another occasion coming as a registered user through their app, and also subscribing in digital and print. The survey data suggests clearly that some users are doing all of these—even if publishers do not always recognize them as the same person.

In all, about 3 in 4 adults report that they receive news from at least one social media platform, and social media is a popular news source for both those who pay for news as well as those who do not. Fully 73 percent of those who pay for news also get it in social media versus 76 percent of those who do not pay for news.

Indeed, social media is an important way for subscribers to stay connected with their favored news sources. If anything, we believe the evidence suggests that this may be an underused way of engaging with core audiences. In all, 24 percent of those who pay for news follow their regular paid news source on social media.

This level of engagement with a preferred source on social media is the same for people who don’t pay—25 percent say they follow their regular free news source on social media.

Facebook is the most popular social media site for news, as 6 in 10 adults report getting news from Facebook. Many Americans also get news from YouTube (36 percent), Twitter (15 percent), Instagram (14 percent), LinkedIn (10 percent), Snapchat (10 percent), and Reddit (6 percent).

Percent
Any social media 75%
Facebook 60%
YouTube 36%
Twitter 15%
Instagram 14%
LinkedIn 10%
Snapchat 10%
Reddit 6%

Data Source: Question: These days many people get their news and information from social media. Do you ever get any news from...?

Media Insight Project

Those who pay for news are twice as likely as those who do not pay to get news from LinkedIn (13 percent vs. 6 percent). Interestingly, there are no other significant differences between payers and nonpayers when it comes to getting news on other social media platforms.

The numbers suggest not only that some platforms are used by more people than others but that some platforms lend themselves to more frequent use for news.

Among those who use each platform, 58 percent receive news from Facebook multiple times a day compared with 47 percent from Instagram and 43 percent from Snapchat.

Similarly, 38 percent of Reddit users say they get news there multiple times a day, as do 35 percent from Twitter.

YouTube news consumers are somewhat less likely to look at it for news several times a day (23 percent).

And LinkedIn users tend not to use it as frequently for news. Just 8 percent say they turn to it multiple times a day.

Interestingly, there are no significant differences between news payers and those who do not pay for news when it comes to the frequency of getting news on social media.

Demographics of getting news on social media

About three-quarters of Americans of all races and ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups receive news from social media.

The survey did find some differences in the likelihood of getting news from social media related to gender and age.

Women are more likely than men to say they get news from social media (80 percent vs. 69 percent).

And although younger adults are more likely than older adults to get news on social media, many older adults also now get news there as well.

In all, a remarkable 90 percent of adults age 18-34 get news on social media. Yet, that number is 82 percent for adults age 35-49, and 67 percent for adults 50-64 years old.

What’s more, fully 50 percent of adults age 65 and older told us they are now getting news on social media. And among this oldest cohort, those who pay for news are notably more likely to get news from social media (55 percent) than those who do not pay for news (36 percent).

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