Our podcast: Digital News Report 2024. Episode 4: How much people pay for news

"Publishers definitely need to look at a broad range of strategies to get people to subscribe, not just relying on trials or discounts," says Craig Robertson in this podcast episode
9th July 2024

Spotify | Apple

In this episode of our Digital News Report 2024 podcast series, we look at how much money people pay for news and how this compares to the ‘full sticker’ price. We look at payment trends around the world, the various ways news organisations price their subscriptions, and how much non-subscribers say they would be prepared to pay for news.

The speakers

Craig T. Robertson is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. His research focus includes news trust and credibility, fact-checking and verification, and how both partisan attitudes and epistemic beliefs factor into these domains. He is the author of the Digital News Report 2024 chapter into how much people pay for online news.

Our host Federica Cherubini is Director of Leadership Development at the Reuters Institute. She is an expert in newsroom operations and organisational change, with more than ten years of experience spanning major publishers, research institutes and editorial networks around the world.

The transcript

Subscription trendsHow much are people paying for news?Strategies for gaining subscribersWhat non-subscribers say Creating news that people value

Subscription trends 

Federica: Online news subscriptions is a topic that we’ve looked at a lot in our Digital News Reports throughout the years. Before we look more closely at the research this year, could you describe what the general trend has been in news subscriptions around the world over the past several years, including what type of publications are doing well and how this varies by country.

Craig: Definitely. In our work – and it has to be stressed, is survey work, where we ask survey respondents if they pay for news – what we’ve been seeing is stagnation. So over the past few years we haven’t seen the overall proportion of people paying for news increase at all. It’s a little different country to country. But even there, increases or declines haven’t been all that big – maybe a few percentage points here and there.

So, overall, across 20 markets we track, 17% of people pay for online news. This hasn’t changed for three years. The country with the largest proportion of people paying continues to be Norway (with 40% of people paying), followed by Sweden (with 31% of people paying). This is way more than the UK, where only 8% of people pay, and Germany too, where only 13% of people pay.

In terms of what people are paying for – what we’ve talked about for several years now is this ‘winner-takes-most’ dynamic. Essentially, in a lot of markets, a lot of subscriptions are being taken up by one (maybe two) large news brands. In the US, this is the New York Times. In France, it’s Le Monde. In the UK it’s a bit different, with the Times and Telegraph and Guardian. But, still, beyond those brands the numbers start to get smaller. The brands that have tended to do well are these large legacy publications – typically old newspapers with a long brand history and reputation. There are smaller publications which are digital first, of course, which have managed to find sustainable business models. But these don’t show up as clearly in our data, since we’re working with survey data.

How much are people paying for news? 

Federica: In your chapter this year, you didn’t just want to see the proportion who pay for news but how much they are paying. Why is this important and how did you go about exploring it?

Craig: Yeah this is something that came up in some prior research. We did a report a while ago where we talked to news subscribers, as well as people who had cancelled their subscriptions. What we noticed – or what we got a sense of – was that a lot of people seemed to not be paying full price for their news subscription. When we talked to them, they’d say they were paying the trial price. People who cancelled said, yeah, they just stopped paying after the trial ran out.

That made us think about how many people – more widely – were paying full price or not. Obviously many news brands offer discounts or trials. It’s a good way to get people to sign up. Maybe those people cancel after the trial. Or maybe they continue and pay full price.

Finding out an estimate of how many people are paying full or discounted prices is important because getting that estimate tells a different, and quite interesting story. We get reports about 'News Brand A' reaching 100,000 subscribers. Or 'News Brand B' reaching 1 million. But underneath those headline subscriber numbers, what’s going on? Are old subscribers who cancelled just being replaced with new subscribers who are maybe also going to cancel? Those headline numbers can mask underlying churn. News brands themselves know what’s going on with their subscribers. But they won’t exactly tell us. So we had to explore it ourselves.

And we did that, essentially, by asking people. How much do you pay for your main news subscription? We gave them some options – less than £1, £2 to £5 etc. – and then compared this to the full price of the brand they said they paid for.

Federica: What are some of the headline figures in how much people are paying and how does this vary across the world?

Craig: So we looked at 20 countries. Across these, what we found was 41% of news subscribers not paying full price for their subscription. So four in ten people on trials or discounts. But it definitely varies by country. In the UK, we had the same estimate – 41% of people not paying full price. In Canada, we found more than half – 54% – not paying full price for their subscription. The smallest proportion was in France, where 21% weren’t paying full price. But that’s still a lot. It’s a fifth of people. 

Federica: Is there anything that explains this wide variation? Is it just down to the subscription strategies of the few titles that happen to dominate individual markets?

Craig: Yeah it gets complicated. Some of it may be about prices. So median prices for subscriptions in France and Spain, for example, are a bit cheaper. And these are two countries where a smaller proportion of people aren’t paying full price. Half of subscribers in Switzerland, on the other hand, aren’t paying full price. And median prices there are a lot higher.

Beyond that, it’s probably got a lot to do with publisher strategies in different countries. It’s hard for us to know for sure. But it some markets, like the US, trials can last up to a year. If you give someone a trial that long, it’s definitely going to show up in our numbers. Whereas if you give people a trial for just a month or two, you might be getting people onto the full price quicker, which then shows up in our data.

But generally it’s hard to know for sure, just based on the survey data we have.

Strategies for gaining subscribers 

Federica: What are the various methods that news outlets are using to win over new subscribers? Can you share some examples of news publications’ cover price versus how much people are actually paying for them?

Craig: So yeah, there are a lot of different strategies for getting people to pay. We detail some of them in the report, but even that’s not all of them. We’ve got things like donation – just asking people if they’d like to support the news brand, but not restricting people from seeing content. At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got hard pay walls. So that’s seeing no content unless you subscribe.

But, generally, what we see most brands doing is something in the middle. More news brands are asking people to register – hand over their email address – in exchange for seeing content. This helps news brands with collecting user data and gives them a chance to email people with offers. It’s become a lot more prevalent with third party cookies declining – so brands need new ways to collect user data.

The most common strategies are probably the freemium model – used by lots of tabloids with large online traffic. Most of their content is free, but some articles are kept for subscribers. And then there’s premium, where some general news articles are free, but most content is for subscribers. This is the New York Times model, for instance. And in a few of the European markets I was seeing partial access. So you can read the first paragraph of an article, but you have to subscribe to see the rest. So, yeah, a lot of different strategies to take.

In terms of cover prices versus what people are actually paying…In the US, across the brands we include in the survey, we’ve got a median price of around $16 across brands. So across brands like the New York Times, Washington Post, etc., the median price for a standard digital subscription rounds out to be around $16. In terms of what people are ACTUALLY paying for each, quite often it’s $5-10.

In the UK it’s very similar. So a median price around £11.50 across brands. But you get quite a few people paying less than £10.

What non-subscribers say 

Federica: As well as looking at people who are paying for news, you also asked non-subscribers how much they would be willing to pay for news. What did they say?

Craig: Well, they said what I expected them to. The main takeaway is that most non-subscribers don’t want to pay anything. Across our 20 markets, 57% said they wouldn’t be willing to pay anything. So more than half of non-subscribers saying they don’t want to pay. The rest…they only say they’re willing to pay a few dollars or pounds. Definitely not enough to sustain a business on.

But it’s what I expected. Whenever we’ve asked non-subscribers if they would pay, or how much, or what they think about paying – most of the time it’s the same message. A lot of people have just gotten used to free news. It’s been free all this time and they don’t see a reason to pay. If a news brand puts up a paywall, they just go somewhere else. They’ll Google a story and find it somewhere. For others, they don’t value it enough to pay. They don’t see the content as unique or valuable. They maybe don’t see it as particularly interesting or helpful. It sounds harsh, but this is what people say when you ask them.

To get people to pay, you need to offer a product that people want. And to find out what people want, you need to ask them.

Federica: Are there any common features of the news ecosystems among countries where a high proportion say they wouldn’t pay anything for news?

Craig: I wouldn’t say so, no. It’s a common feature across the board in markets with large public service media, in a market like the US without it. It’s common in the UK, Japan, Norway…everywhere. I think it’s symptomatic of what I mentioned before: people either got used to not paying, so they see no reason. Or they don’t value the content enough to pay for it. And that sentiment cuts across borders.

Creating news that people value 

Federica: Given that majorities in most of the countries you survey say they wouldn’t be prepared to pay anything for news, how important do you think subscription offers like trials and discounts are in persuading people to part with their money? Should news publications be looking at other ways to create products that audiences value enough to pay for?

Craig: I think trials and discounts are an obvious starting point. In the past, when we’ve asked people what might encourage them to pay, people say they might subscribe if it was cheaper. Everyone likes things when they’re cheaper. It’s not just news. It’s food, it’s your Netflix. So, yeah, trials and discounts are an obvious starting point. But you can only offer trials that are so cheap before they become unsustainable. And the sense we get is that getting people onto a trial is in no way a guarantee that they’ll pay full price afterwards. Many people just cancel.

Trials are a double-edged sword. They can get people to sign up, get to know a brand. You can learn about each subscriber and give them personalised offers. You can try to convince them of the value of news. But on the other side, they might create expectations. People will expect or want ever-cheaper trials. People may jump from trial to trial – researchers are seeing that happen with Netflix, Disney+ and the other streamers. And people may just sign up because it’s cheap, but never use the subscription.

Publishers definitely need to look at a broad range of strategies to get people to subscribe, not just relying on trials or discounts. I’m just a researcher, not a business person. But there are various approaches being used. And what works will depend on a variety of things like the specific market, the type of audience, etc. But we’re seeing things like bundling – putting news titles together to increase the perceived value. Apple News is quite popular in the US. Bundling gives people the sense they are getting a lot for their money – and they usually are. Whether it makes financial sense for publishers depends on the details…

Other publishers have looked beyond the news to a wider package of content. So offering news but also recipes, games, and product reviews. These kinds of things can enrich people’s lives, help them.

Other approaches have included different content packages. A popular one is a curated digest of news. There’s so much news out there, so much chaos in the world, that it’s hard to keep up with what matters. Some people will pay for a curated digest of the most important and interesting stories.

But ultimately what works will depend on the publisher.

Federica: Thank you Craig for joining us today.

Craig: Thanks for having me.

Listen the whole DNR24 series

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