Fake News Is A Concern, But Why Pay When Quality Is Free?

It would appear to be a conundrum. Around seven in ten Brits are concerned about the veracity of the news they read, and yet only 9% are willing to pay subscriptions for quality content.

It sounds like a double standard, doesn't it? But when you look deeper at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University report, several points rise to the surface. The main one -- and it's a pretty obvious one when you think about it -- is the UK has so many trusted news sources that are free to use that people presumably don't feel the need to pay up.

One aspect that stands out is that people are self-selecting to shift their news consumption toward more reputable titles. There are a bunch of graphs on this lengthy report but suffice it to say that the more you earn, the more educated you are, the more likely you are to focus on reputable news. There is also a youth skew there too. So the young, the educated and the higher earners are avoiding titles they don't trust.

But here's the rub. There is virtually no difference in levels of trust in the news among those who pay for their content and those who do not. In other words, it is very easy to focus on reputable news sources in the UK without ever having to pay a penny.

The elephant in the room here is the BBC. It towers above all over news outlets in the UK and is, by its very nature, a free service.

In fact, when Reuters looked at its audience it found that 60% of people who of people who are prepared to pay for their news, still visit the BBC regularly and half of those who expect their news to be free also visit the site. In other words, selective people who want to pay for their content trust the BBC so, by definition, it's a trustworthy source that is completely free.

The situation becomes clearer still when one looks at the top 19 news sources the researchers list for the UK. The BBC is obviously way out ahead as the number one source for Brits, with The Guardian somewhat behind, but still a clear leader over The Times in third place. We then have Sky News in fourth and The Telegraph in fifth. In the top 19 spots, only The Times, The Telegraph and the FT (in 14th spot) have paywalls. 

Among the rest there are highly reputable television news providers, broadsheets and tabloids as well as online specialists such as HuffPost (in 7th spot).

Another chart shows the difference among Brits who have heard of controversial, alternative news sites, such as Breitbart and The Canary, compared to those who use them. Awareness is fairly high, around the one in seven mark, but usage is virtually non-existent. 

So, we have a bunch of alternative news sites that Brits know about but hardly use. That would account for the concern people have about the veracity of news.

We have a top 19 news site chart in which only three organisations have pay walls (plus The Guardian's voluntary payment scheme). The other 16 are highly reputable and provide free news. That would explain why only 9% pay for their news.

When you think about it, the two findings that appear to be contradictory are very easily explained by Brits having access to the likes of the BBC completely free of charge.

People are cautious about the news, but paying for access doesn't have much effect on their trust levels for the wider news industry.

By definition, people who are worried about fake news and disinformation are pointing their browsers to reputable organisations -- but this, of course, does not mean they need to pay when there is so much available for free.

It reminds me of being in a meeting at a national newspaper when someone asked something along the lines of this: so if we give our content away for free, how do we ever people people to pay for it later on?

I have yet to find anyone who can answer that question.

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