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June 20, 2024, 10:41 a.m.
Business Models

Many people don’t pay full price for their news subscription. Most don’t want to pay anything at all

Is increasing subscriber numbers by offering people rock-bottom trial prices sustainable?

It’s no secret that news publishers have struggled to make money and sustain their businesses in the digital era. Ad revenue has been siphoned away by Big Tech and money from print advertising has been in continual decline. A solution to this problem is simple on the face of it, but not so in practice: get people to subscribe.

Some outlets have been quite successful at this, with several major publishers reaching milestones in digital subscriptions: 300,000 subscribers at El País, 500,000 at Le Monde, and 10 million at The New York Times. But the phenomenon we have documented in the Digital News Report is one of “winner takes most”: a few large and respected news brands amass healthy online subscriber bases, but others struggle. The successful push for digital subscriber numbers from some major news publishers also masks another potential story bubbling under the surface: the fact that many of these subscribers are not paying full price.

This question of how many people actually pay full price for their digital news subscription motivated a question in this year’s Digital News Report 2024. We asked online news subscribers how much they actually paid, and asked non-subscribers how much they would be willing to pay, if anything. Our findings are striking.

Across the 20 countries where we asked people how much they paid, 41% said they were paying less than full price for their online news subscription. We calculated this by looking at the price people said they paid for their subscription and comparing this to the full, non-discounted price of a basic digital subscription to the brand they said they paid for.

While the overall proportion is 41%, there is some variation by country. Around half of subscribers in Canada (54%), Switzerland (47%), and the United States (46%) said they paid less than full price, but only a fifth said the same in France (21%), and a quarter in Denmark (25%).

Putting these numbers in context is difficult, since we don’t have comparable estimates of the proportion of people who, say, pay trial prices for Netflix or Disney+. And, certainly, individual news brands will have a clear picture of how many of their own customers are paying full price. But what our data allow us to do is draw a general picture of the news landscape across countries: one that can paint headlines about increasing subscriber numbers in a different light.

Publishers across countries all offer deals of some kind, whether it’s a month or two free, a discount for a few months, or even a trial for a whole year. These offers give people a chance to take on a news subscription and get a taste for the brand without committing to too much financially. The struggle, however, is keeping those trial subscribers on board and convincing them to continue paying the full price after their trial has ended. While our data don’t offer us a picture of how many of the 41% paying less than full price will continue on to paying the full amount, anecdotal evidence we’ve gathered over the years suggests many will not. Underneath those headline figures of subscriber numbers appears to be a lot of churn. While increasing subscriber numbers seems, on the surface, a good thing, it raises the question of how those increases are achieved. Is increasing subscriber numbers by offering people rock-bottom trial prices sustainable?

This comes also in the context of an apparent stagnation in online news subscriptions. Across the 20 markets we have tracked over time, we find that 17% of people say they pay for online news in some form — a figure that has not shifted for three years. Rates of payment have not increased and, in some cases, may have fallen back with the cost-of-living crisis in many countries.

When it comes to people who don’t currently pay for news, which is the vast majority in most countries, we find that the majority (57%) are not willing to pay anything at all. Asked how much they would be willing to pay, 69% in the U.K. and 68% in Germany said nothing. Even in countries with high rates of paying for online news, Norway and Finland, a large proportion (45% and 43%, respectively) also said they were not willing to pay anything. Among those who were willing to pay something, most were only willing to pay the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars.

The overall story appears to be that the news industry, in many countries, has already got most of the people interested enough to pay for what’s on offer at current prices. On-boarding the remaining people who are currently not willing to pay anything for online news will be an uphill battle. There is only so much discounting that can reasonably be done without business being unsustainable (if it isn’t already), and while there are other models involving different packages of content at different price points (as well as approaches like bundling), it is difficult to see how the uninterested might be convinced to pay for a product they either don’t want or don’t value enough to fund.

But the bright spot is that some news brands have been successful at building subscriber bases among those that are still interested and engaged in the news — and it’s not just the big players. A broader range of smaller niche publications catering to specific audiences have managed to find success, particularly in the U.S. on platforms such as Substack, showing that the “reader revenue” model can work.

Craig Robertson is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Photo by Flipboard on Unsplash.

POSTED     June 20, 2024, 10:41 a.m.
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