This piece is part of API’s Research Review series, which highlights academic research that could be relevant and useful to the news industry. We also hope that this series will spark ideas among academics with an interest in researching the news.
Battling steep and continuing declines in advertising revenue, many newspaper companies have turned to paid subscriptions (digital and print) to help offset financial losses. Yet attracting subscribers remains a challenge, particularly when considering the enormous amount of information competing for people’s attention — and that people can access much of this information for free. What is it, then, that makes people willing to pay for news?
The reasons range from the expected to the surprising, according to a recent study by doctoral student Weiyue Chen and professor Esther Thorson, both of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism. Their study, which appears in the peer-reviewed academic journal Journalism, focused on understanding not only the content characteristics that drive subscriptions, but also the social and societal motivations to subscribe.
Chen and Thorson surveyed more than 400 people across the United States. Their responses confirmed what has been uncovered in previous studies: People are willing to pay for high-quality news. According to survey participants, news worth paying for covers diverse and important topics, offers in-depth analysis, is timely and accurate, cites multiple sources, and is well-written.
Chen and Thorson’s survey explored a number of other motivations that people have for subscribing to news. The researchers asked participants if they consume news to keep up to date on current topics, to be entertained, to promote personal growth, and to help them make decisions. It turned out that none of these motivations were tied to a person’s willingness to pay for news. However, when Chen and Thorson asked participants if they consumed news to fit in socially, they found that this motivation — related to a person’s social identity — was tied to the desire to pay for news.
Indeed, the connection people feel between the news and their social identities was labeled by Chen and Thorsen as “the most important finding of [their] article.” To measure this social motivation, study participants were asked how much they agreed with statements that the news they consume “defines” and “promotes” their membership in the groups to which they belong. Results showed a strong, statistically significant relationship between a person’s agreement with these statements and their subscribing to national newspapers, local newspapers, and newspapers in general, as well as print and digital bundles, and digital-only subscriptions. In fact, the social connection was a more important reason for subscribing than the quality of the news or people’s pre-existing news habits. Chen and Thorson concluded that, “People pay for news because it helps maintain and promote their social status among peers.”
If people tend to pay for news that supports only their identity, then partisan outlets could flourish while more impartial outlets suffer.
In thinking through explanations for this finding, the researchers suggested that one possibility could be tied to partisanship, namely that “the strength of this motivation is being fueled by the increased perception of the mainstream press, certainly newspapers, as being part of the social identity of liberals and Democrats, not of conservatives and Republicans.” Only a future study, Chen and Thorsen stated, could shed empirical light on this suggestion.
Furthermore, that people define themselves socially by the news they consume is perhaps not surprising, but still, caution is warranted: If people tend to pay for news that supports only their identity, then partisan outlets could flourish while more impartial outlets suffer. “A free and unbiased press,” the researchers wrote, “should not support particular social identities as much as it challenges attention and concern for all kinds of identities.”
Finally, one other surprising, if not alarming, finding is that a willingness to pay for news was not tied to perceptions of journalism as a key element in a functioning democracy. “There is a gap,” the researchers noted, “between how the public value the press and how [journalists and scholars] see it.” In the end, people pay for news when it serves to strengthen their social identity, but not because of any feeling they may have about news being good for democracy.
In spite of this democracy-related finding, hope remains as news organizations continue to search for ways to attract paying customers. Asked in an email to sum up the positive aspects of the study, Chen concluded that, “even in a more diversified market with so many free alternatives available, people are actually willing to pay for quality news.”
Chen, W., & Thorson, E. Perceived individual and societal values of news and paying for subscriptions. Journalism.