The number of people paying for online news has increased in a small number of countries, but the overall percentage remains low – according to new analysis of global online news subscription trends.
That was one of the key findings of the 2021 Digital News Report (DNR) from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
According to the data, based on a survey of 20 countries where publishers have been pushing for more online payment, 17% of people paid for any online news (via subscription, donation, or one-off payment) in the last year – an increase of two percentage points compared to 2020.
“The last year has also seen more quality journalism go behind paywalls, as print and digital-born publishers turn to subscription, membership, and donations to reduce their reliance on advertising,” said the report.
“Despite this, it is important to note that the vast majority of consumers in these countries continue to resist paying for any online news,” it continued, before concluding that “overall progress remains slow.”
When it comes to reader revenue, the report found that people were most willing to pay for news in a small number of wealthy countries – where previously print newspaper subscriptions were most common.
Leading the way are the Nordic countries. Forty-five per cent of people in Norway paid for online news, followed by Sweden (30%). In the United States and Finland around a fifth of people (21% and 20% respectively) paid for online content.
In the UK, just 8% of people pay to read news online - an increase of just one percentage point since 2016. UK subscribers were particularly unwilling to pay for local or regional news: only 3% of the 8% who paid to read news online were paying for local or regional news.
In most countries, however - even those where people are willing to pay for news - a handful of big national brands account for the majority of digital subscriptions. This reinforces what the report authors call “the winner-takes-most dynamics” of the reader revenue model.
In the UK, the survey found that more than half (52%) of people who paid for digital news subscribed to the Telegraph, Times or the Guardian. In the US, nearly half (45%) of subscribers were paying to read the New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal.
Research by Press Gazette backs up these findings. In April, PG found that 28 English-language publishers have crossed the 100,000 subscriber mark with more than 23 million digital news subscriptions between them. More than half of these subscriptions, however, are to The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
A number of paid-for US titles, including the New York Times, benefitted from the “Trump bump” in 2016 and 2017, which saw interest in news surge on both sides of the political divide.
The 2021 DNR also asked people how many subscriptions they took out. In most countries, the majority of people who had a subscription had signed up for one, with subscribers also tending to be over 40 years old.
Tech platforms such as Google and Facebook’s dominance of online advertising have eaten into revenues for news publishers.
Data from WAN-IFRA suggests that daily publications have seen their revenues shrink by around 20% since 2015, with local titles among those hardest hit. In the UK, national news brands saw advertising revenue fall 24% in 2020, while the advertising incomes of regional publications were down 35%.
“Commercial publishers that still rely on income from print or digital advertising have had a torrid time, but acceleration of digital plans as a consequence may put some on the long-term path to survival,” said the report.
“Subscription and membership is becoming a sustainable model for a growing number of high-quality and niche publications, and in a few countries for local media groups and individuals,” said the report.
It noted that paid content was not a “silver bullet” for all publishers.
Most publishers are still in the early stages of building up their digital subscriber bases and often attract readers through low-cost offers.
The report found that the potential for growth in the area of subscriptions is limited. Amongst those people who currently do not pay for news, just a small minority say they are likely to do so in the future. Just 8% of people in the UK that do not pay for news at the moment said they might be willing to pay to read content they like in the future.
In the UK, the BBC’s dominance of online audiences may be one reason why people are less willing to pay for news.
“Abundant supply of free news, whether from commercial or public service providers, is a key factor for some of those not currently paying,” said the report.
The report raised concerns that “with more high-quality content disappearing behind paywalls there are pressing concerns about what happens to those who have limited interest or who can’t afford it”.
It said that government intervention could be an option for some publishers struggling to generate revenues. Shoring up struggling publishers, promoting public service broadcasting and better regulation of tech platforms are among the avenues already being pursued in some countries.
Yet, despite the funding challenges facing many news organisations, only a minority of people outside the media industry seem to be concerned.
More than half (53%) of people across the 46 surveyed markets said that they were either ‘not at all concerned’ or ‘not very concerned’, while just one quarter (27%) of people felt governments should step in to help struggling news organisations.