Commentary

Readers Are More Willing To Pay For News, But For How Long?

U.S. consumers this year are slightly more willing to pay for news than they were a year ago, and a key issue facing newspapers is maintaining those paying subscribers and attracting new ones as the coronavirus pandemic takes an economic toll.
The percentage of Americans who pay for news rose to 20% this year from about 16% in the prior two years, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism said in a report published last week. The organization surveyed thousands of people worldwide, including several thousand U.S. residents about their news consumption habits.
The four-point gain in paid readership wasn't as big as the seven-point "Trump Bump" that came after Donald Trump won the 2016 election, spurring younger and liberal readers to support media outlets viewed as critical of his administration. If Trump keeps sliding in the polls, news outlets may have to ponder an "After-Trump Slump," unless they can maintain reader loyalty during the Biden administration.
Any slump most likely would be felt by newspapers with a national scope, like The Washington Post and The New York Times, which received most of the growth in reader revenue. About half of people who subscribed to any form of digital or print newspaper limited their selection to those two titles, the Reuters Institute found.
Online readership has become more vital to all news publishers, with 11% of people in the U.S. saying they pay for the digital-only version of a news site. That makes digital-only news more popular among readers, with only 6% saying they pay for a print and digital bundle and 4% paying for an aggregator, according to Reuters.

Its study suggests publishers need to focus on their key strengths, with 53% of subscribers to online news brands saying their top reason for paying for news is better quality than they can find from free sources. About 52% of people said they want to fund good journalism -- making quality an important selling point in the marketing efforts by publishers.
Only 13% of readers said an online news brand provides particular information for their job.

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Giving readers that kind of information can be challenging for local newspapers, given the variety of professions and industries in any community. However, it does suggest that covering the biggest employers in a region is useful to a wide group of readers, as many publications already do.

Only 11% of readers said they subscribed because of other membership benefits. That comparably low percentage may indicate publishers can develop marketing and loyalty programs that add value to the services they provide. The pandemic has limited the ability to offer exclusive access to live events featuring newsmakers or prominent journalists, but perhaps virtual events and webinars can be an effective substitute.
The pandemic is challenging publishers to consider ways to boost the value proposition for readers, and those innovations are likely to have lasting effects on how they marketing their services.
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