20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
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2050
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2040
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2030
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2020
I  S  M  2  0  2  0
7

News consumers divide into haves and have-nots

“Compare areas that have a robust local newspaper and a mission-driven online news outlet to areas that have neither, and you’ll find a gulf in coverage quality.”

For most American history, the quality of news that people received depended largely on where they lived and how much they were willing to pay. The internet seemed to shatter that formula, but in 2020, it will become apparent that geography and spending ability are once again separating news consumers into haves and have-nots.

More and more publishers have put up paywalls in the past few years, and in 2020, the trend seems likely to accelerate. Prior to its acquisition by GateHouse Media, Gannett was experimenting with different paywall permutations, and the merged company will face even greater pressure to drive digital subscriptions. Further consolidation of the big newspaper chains (as predicted by Ken Doctor) could result in additional efforts to juice online user revenue, considering the continuing weakness of online advertising rates. Even some digital-native sites may opt for a metered paywall — Vox Media is reportedly eyeing one following its merger with New York Media, which put up its own paywall in late 2018.

To be sure, most of these will be metered or “soft” paywalls, but free content will increasingly come with strings attached — intrusive ads that wreck the user experience, or compulsory site registration. While a small percentage of news junkies might reach for their credit card in order to avoid such hassles, the casual news consumer will probably just leave.

Even people willing to pay for news might not be able to access high-quality local coverage, depending on where they live. With more cuts on the horizon at the national newspaper chains, and with born-digital local sites unevenly distributed, metropolitan areas of similar sizes will have vastly different numbers of journalists covering their government, businesses, schools, and cultural life. Compare areas that have a robust local newspaper and a mission-driven online news outlet to areas that have neither, and you’ll find a gulf in coverage quality.

There are silver linings, however — both for those underserved regions and for those news consumers who want quality coverage but can’t afford digital subscriptions. Three of the biggest newsrooms in the country are likely to provide free online news for the foreseeable future: the Associated Press, Reuters, and National Public Radio. And the two companies often blamed for the decline of local newspapers, Google and Facebook, are finally investing serious cash into reviving local news (each has committed $300 million), after years of dismissing it as not their problem or doling out piddling sums.gt

However, the biggest divide of all among news consumers has less to do with money or geography than with interest. “News avoidance” is on the rise worldwide. In the future, the only people who consistently consume high-quality news may be the ones who really care about it (perhaps the 16 percent of Americans who currently pay for news online). Not even a presidential election year in the U.S. can change that.

Matthew Pressman is an assistant professor of journalism at Seton Hall University.

For most American history, the quality of news that people received depended largely on where they lived and how much they were willing to pay. The internet seemed to shatter that formula, but in 2020, it will become apparent that geography and spending ability are once again separating news consumers into haves and have-nots.

More and more publishers have put up paywalls in the past few years, and in 2020, the trend seems likely to accelerate. Prior to its acquisition by GateHouse Media, Gannett was experimenting with different paywall permutations, and the merged company will face even greater pressure to drive digital subscriptions. Further consolidation of the big newspaper chains (as predicted by Ken Doctor) could result in additional efforts to juice online user revenue, considering the continuing weakness of online advertising rates. Even some digital-native sites may opt for a metered paywall — Vox Media is reportedly eyeing one following its merger with New York Media, which put up its own paywall in late 2018.

To be sure, most of these will be metered or “soft” paywalls, but free content will increasingly come with strings attached — intrusive ads that wreck the user experience, or compulsory site registration. While a small percentage of news junkies might reach for their credit card in order to avoid such hassles, the casual news consumer will probably just leave.

Even people willing to pay for news might not be able to access high-quality local coverage, depending on where they live. With more cuts on the horizon at the national newspaper chains, and with born-digital local sites unevenly distributed, metropolitan areas of similar sizes will have vastly different numbers of journalists covering their government, businesses, schools, and cultural life. Compare areas that have a robust local newspaper and a mission-driven online news outlet to areas that have neither, and you’ll find a gulf in coverage quality.

There are silver linings, however — both for those underserved regions and for those news consumers who want quality coverage but can’t afford digital subscriptions. Three of the biggest newsrooms in the country are likely to provide free online news for the foreseeable future: the Associated Press, Reuters, and National Public Radio. And the two companies often blamed for the decline of local newspapers, Google and Facebook, are finally investing serious cash into reviving local news (each has committed $300 million), after years of dismissing it as not their problem or doling out piddling sums.gt

However, the biggest divide of all among news consumers has less to do with money or geography than with interest. “News avoidance” is on the rise worldwide. In the future, the only people who consistently consume high-quality news may be the ones who really care about it (perhaps the 16 percent of Americans who currently pay for news online). Not even a presidential election year in the U.S. can change that.

Matthew Pressman is an assistant professor of journalism at Seton Hall University.

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