Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

Who pays for news in general and why

Despite an increasing number of free news options available, a majority of adults pay for a news source of some sort. Again, 53 percent of adults report they either pay for a newspaper, magazine, news app, or news site, or donate money to public radio, public television, or a nonprofit news organization. And 65 percent of people subscribe to cable or satellite TV through packages that often, though not always, include cable news.1

And of those who pay, as noted above, more than half (54 percent) subscribe to newspapers in print or digital form, which represents 29 percent of adults overall.

Americans pay for news in a wide variety of formats. Yet for all age groups, even the Millennial generation, print subscriptions remain generally more popular than digital ones.

Percent
Magazine in any format 31%
Print version of a magazine 19%
Both a print and a digital version of a magazine 9%
Digital version of a magazine 2%
Newspaper in any format 29%
Print version of a newspaper 14%
Both a print and a digital version of a newspaper 12%
Digital version of a newspaper 3%
News apps for your smartphone or tablet 15%
Digital news site 10%
Print or digital newsletter 9%
Public television, public radio, or other nonprofit journalism 17%
Public television 10%
Other nonprofit journalism 8%
Public radio 7%

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

As an example, 29 percent of adults say they personally pay for a newspaper subscription. In particular, 14 percent pay only for a print subscription, 12 percent have a digital and a print subscription, and 3 percent get only a digital subscription.

In addition, 31 percent of adults subscribe or regularly pay for a magazine. Nineteen percent pay only for a print magazine, 9 percent pay for a print and a digital magazine, and 2 percent pay only for a digital magazine.

How are digitally native news sources (those not connected to legacy media brands) doing at getting people to pay? They look a good deal like legacy media on that score. Adults are about as likely to pay for digitally native sources, such as Slate Plus, as they are to pay for digital versions of a newspaper or magazine. In all, 15 percent of adults pay for a digital news app, and 10 percent pay for access to digitally native news sites.

And finally, there is another category of paying for news—nonprofit media such as PBS and NPR stations and a growing host of new digital nonprofit news sites, including places like the Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, or local outlets such as Voice of San Diego. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans donate money to at least one nonprofit media source such as public radio or television, including 6 percent who donate to more than one type of nonprofit news outlet. Seven percent of Americans give money to public radio, 10 percent to public television, and 8 percent to other nonprofit journalism organizations (such as ProPublica, local nonprofit media, the Center for Public Integrity, and many others).

The demographics of who pays for news

Who are the people who pay for news? Older Americans, and those with higher education, are most likely to do so. But it would be a mistake to think those are the only key determining factors.

Indeed, many adults of all ages, races, education levels, and political affiliations pay for a news source. In all, as noted above, close to 4 in 10 of the youngest adults age 18 to 34 in America (37 percent) say they pay for news sources of some kind. Of those, 46 percent pay for a newspaper subscription.

That compares to 75 percent of adults age 65 and older who pay for at least one subscription of some kind (70 percent of whom pay for a newspaper).

Still, the data run contrary to the notion that only older Americans will subscribe to newspapers.

Percent
18-34 years old 37%
35-49 years old 51%
50-64 years old 59%
65 years old and older 75%

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

If age is one factor of who pays, education is another indicator. But as with age, it would be a mistake to consider it decisive.

In all, 66 percent of adults with a college degree pay for news, but so do 43 percent of people with a high school diploma or less. Looking at income, people from all socioeconomic groups pay for news. (Below we highlight how income and education are related to differences in why people say they pay for news.)

There are no significant differences in paying for news related to race and ethnicity when controlling for other demographic factors. In total, 41 percent of Hispanics, 49 percent of African Americans, and 56 percent of whites pay for news.

Why do people pay for news?

If there is broad diversity in who pays for news across race, age, and even income, what are the reasons or factors that influence whether a person is willing to pay for the news they get?

That may be one of the most important questions facing journalism as it moves toward a more consumer-driven revenue model.

In an earlier study of Millennials, we at the Media Insight Project identified one defining characteristic of news consumption, particularly in the digital age when so much news is consumed in social platforms.

Some people are “news bumpers,” meaning they primarily get their news by bumping into it without seeking it out or turning intentionally to particular sources. Other people are “news seekers,” meaning they look for topics and issues they are interested in and actively and intentionally hunt for them. In subsequent studies of all age groups, we have seen the same pattern. There are seekers and bumpers across all demographic groups. Older people are more likely to be seekers, though there are plenty of younger people who also seek out news rather than simply bump into it.

Three-quarters of those who pay for news fall into the category of being news seekers. That suggests seekers are the largest and most likely group for publishers to try to understand.

The data still reveals, however, that a quarter of subscribers to news say they tend to primarily bump into the news they consume. Given the high use of social media by all groups—subscribers, nonsubscribers, seekers, and bumpers—this suggests that a sophisticated and robust social strategy is important for any publication that wants to generate more subscription revenue.

Among all self-described seekers, 62 percent are news subscribers. And nearly 4 in 10 self-described bumpers pay for news.

Percent
Seekers 62%
Bumpers 38%

Data Source: Questions: 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.
Choose the statement that best describes you, even if it is not exactly right. In general…I actively seek out news and information or I mostly bump into news and information as I do other things or hear about it from others.

Media Insight Project

Some may think another indicator of who pays for news is how frequently people seek it out. And indeed, people who pay for news are more likely to consume it more frequently. In all, nearly 8 in 10 of those who pay for news—77 percent—say they get it several times a day or more. But most nonpayers also are frequent news consumers. Among nonpayers, 56 percent get news multiple times a day.

These similarities mean we also need to look deeper, beyond these behavioral tendencies, at the reasons people pay for news. Are those who pay for news looking for information about a few specific topics? Are they sensitive to price and respond to discounts and promotions in subscriptions? Do they do it just to be informed citizens? Are they trying to get information that will help them save money or figure out how to spend their time?

The researchers probed deeply into these factors, both in the survey and in a series of in-depth interviews we conducted in three cities to help inform and construct the survey in the first place.

In the survey, we asked people to identify a particular news outlet or source that they pay for, and then we asked them a series of questions about their reasons and motivations.

Ranking all the reasons people offered looks like this:

John from Chicago says one of the reasons he finally decided to subscribe to The New York Times was because of a ‘super excellent offer’ around the holidays.

At the top, more than 4 in 10 say they were looking for a news source that covers a particular topic, which highlights the opportunity for news outlets that focus on a particular issue or a handful of identifiable franchise topics. Coverage expertise, in other words, is a major factor.

At No. 2, a similar number, about 4 in 10 report they started to pay for a news source because their friends or family used it. This finding of news having a social dynamic is something we also heard in formative interviews. Molly, who is about 30 years old and lives in Phoenix, said she and her husband have been accustomed to reading the local newspaper at her father’s house and will probably now buy a copy when they get their own place.

At No. 3, promotions appear effective in boosting news subscriptions. Close to 4 in 10 report that a discount or promotion led them to start paying for a source. Several people in the formative interviews also mentioned the importance of deals.

Each of these three reasons—expert coverage of an issue, use by friends and family, and discounted subscription promotions—were cited by close to 4 in 10. Collectively, about 3 in 4 news subscribers cited at least one of these three motivations.

Percent
Looking for a news source that covers a particular topic/issue 43%
Friends or family used it 41%
There was a discount or promotion for it 37%
Personal situation changed and have more time to use it 22%
Financial situation changed 19%
Hitting the maximum amount of content could see for free 17%
Noticed it on social media 13%
Got at work and then started paying for it 12%

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

Media Insight Project

After those top three factors come three others, cited by about half as many news subscribers.

About 2 in 10 started subscribing due to a lifestyle or financial change. Twenty-two percent started subscribing when their situation changed to permit more time to use a paid subscription, and 19 percent subscribed when their financial situation allowed it. These findings suggest that publishers have an opportunity to target potential subscribers at key life stages from getting a first job to retirement.

Some 17 percent of all payers say they subscribed because they kept hitting the maximum content they were allowed to see for free, a sign that so-called “pay meters” are a factor for at least some subscribers—but not necessarily a dominant one. The same number of newspaper or magazine payers say this. All of which suggests that pay meters are having some of the effect publishers hoped they would: motivating heavy users to pay for the service. But the data also suggest those meters work in combination with other considerations of “value,” including frequent engagement, quality content, and more.

Almost as many payers (13 percent) say the source’s social media presence helped lead them to pay. (Later in this report we detail how social media presents new opportunities for news outlets to connect with news consumers.)

The survey also asked payers how important a list of various factors were in their decision to get their news from a specific source they subscribe to.

Interestingly, whether people pay for news or not, the reasons why they regularly get news from a source is virtually the same. Subscribers are simply more likely to list each factor as important. In other words, subscribers get news for the same reasons nonsubscribers do. They just tend to feel more intensely about it.

Among those who pay for news, three factors emerged as the most important reasons they turn toward their paid source. The first was that the publication they relied on was very good at covering an issue or topic they care a lot about (48 percent). Almost as many (47 percent) say their favorite news source helps them stay informed to be a better citizen, and 42 percent say they find the news source they turn to most is enjoyable or entertaining.

In probing people’s motivations for getting news, we also went one step further and asked people to name what they like most about the news source to which they subscribe or use most frequently.

News content itself scored high in these open-ended questions.

We got a range of answers, but the most common was local coverage. One in 4 say the favorite aspect of the news source they pay for is the information about their community, hometown, local area, or region. We heard the same in the formatives. For example, Joe, age 52 from Chicago, said he usually seeks out local stories from the Chicago Tribune “because national news I can get somewhere else.”

Nearly as many, about 1 in 5, say what they value most about the news source is the useful or interesting content.

A number of other factors were cited at about half this rate. For instance, 7 percent say what they like most about the news source they subscribe to is that it is accurate or unbiased, the same number (7 percent) appreciate lifestyle or entertainment information, 4 percent say that their news source is timely, 4 percent cite the breadth of issues covered, and the same number say it is convenient (4 percent).

John, who is in his 50s and lives in Chicago, mentioned a feeling social good when explaining all the factors that contributed to his decision to subscribe to The New York Times. ‘I really appreciate the work that The New York Times does, [and] I have confidence in their reporting,’ said John. ‘So I’m going to go out on a limb and spend money that may or may not benefit me that much, but it will be contributing to something that I want to be successful.’

Finally, we asked people who pay for news about the benefits they saw from paying. Again, there was a range of benefits rather than a single factor that jumped out.

The most popular benefit people cite is getting content only available to subscribers. More than a third, higher than any other factor, cite this (36 percent).

Almost as many say they like the coupons and discounts that subscriptions bring them (33 percent).

And a similar number cite a sense of social good and that they feel positive about contributing to journalism.

A slightly smaller number but still more than a quarter (28 percent) say they like to get access to print in addition to digital content.

About half as many report they like getting unlimited numbers of digital stories (14 percent) or cite a second economic factor, having access to giveaways and free items (12 percent).

Percent
I get content that is only available to paying customers 36%
I like the coupons or discounts 33%
I feel good about contributing to the news organization 30%
I get access to print in addition to digital content 28%
It gives me access to events sponsored by the news organization 17%
I like getting an unlimited number of digital stories 14%
I get access to giveaways or other benefits only available to subscribers 12%

Data Source: Question: What benefits do you get from paying for [PAID SOURCE]? Please select all that apply.

Media Insight Project

  1. This estimate of the number of Americans who pay for a specific news source does not include those who pay for either satellite radio or cable/satellite television because these subscriptions include both entertainment and news programming. Sixty-five percent of adults pay for cable or satellite television, 48 percent rent or download movies and television shows, 27 percent download or stream music, 19 percent pay for video games, and 16 percent pay for satellite radio.

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