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Why won’t people pay for news? New study suggests the...



New study identifies the reasons behind people’s reluctance to pay for news

Leon Coetzee (60) tries to sell newspapers on 16 February 2017 in Emmarentia, Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Moeletsi Mabe)

Why won’t people pay for news? This question has long confounded media houses. A new study may have the answer(s).

Is it the price, the content, subscription fatigue, a lack of time to read, a “free mentality” or customer-service issues that are turning off readers’ willingness to pay for news?

Well, it’s all of the above, and more.

Asking “Why don’t people pay for news?”, assistant professor Tim Groot Kormelink and students of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam’s journalism department sought to answer a question that has confounded media houses around the world.

Taking a qualitative approach, 68 participants were provided with a free newspaper trial subscription and interviewed afterwards. Since the project focused on how new news habits start to form, the only selection criterion for participants was their interest in trying out a trial subscription.

Participants were offered a choice of four Dutch newspapers, De Volkskrant, Trouw, AD and Het Parool, as well as a full subscription (six-day print delivery plus digital access), weekend-only print delivery plus digital access, and a digital-only option.

‘Culture of free’

A “free mentality” is negatively correlated with paying for digital news, Groot Kormelink said. Being able to easily access a wealth of information online lowers its perceived value. Four dimensions of “the culture of free” were identified: online news as a public good, the habit of consuming news for free, free alternatives and a lack of interest in news.

Incidentally, a NiemanLab survey, titled Cancel Culture: Why Do People Cancel News Subscriptions? found ideology or politics to be a primary reason for cancelling. Other reasons were price, content that was not good enough, too little time to read and customer service issues.

In 2021, 17% of Dutch people paid for online news, which is the average among the 20 countries tracked in the Reuters Institute Digital News Report of 2021, but is low compared to Nordic countries like Norway (45%) and Sweden (30%). The report found print as a source of information in South Africa had dropped to 32% – 5% down from 2020.  “It can only be a matter of time before we see more print titles closing,” Chris Roper, deputy CEO of Code for Africa, noted in the report, adding that not all the indicators are discouraging, as several news sites, such as Netwerk24 and Daily Maverick, have built sustainable businesses through a blended model of membership/subscription and advertising, plus investigative specialists such as the donor-funded amaBhungane.

Reasons not to pay for a subscription

Price: By far the most cited reason for not paying for news was price. Responses included that it was too costly, not used enough, and their own subscription saturation. Some respondents assumed a print subscription costs too much, while others thought paying for quality news was “unfair”, with the suggestion being that charging creates a divide between the haves and have-nots.

Sufficient freely available news: Recognising that paid-for news tends to be more in-depth, for some participants the level of depth that free news websites and apps provide is enough, suggesting that by providing some free content, newspapers are inadvertently hurting themselves.

Commitment: The third reason cited was participants’ sense of commitment: being stuck with a subscription, committing to one medium, and committing to actually read the news.

Delivery and technical issues: Finally, delivery issues was a reason not to pay for news, whether that was hard-copy newspapers or technical issues with registration or logging into websites.

Reasons to (maybe) pay

Although none of the participants stated that they intended to pay for a subscription, they did imagine situations in which they could envisage doing so:

  • A more attractive price point;
  • A flexible service;
  • Convenience (one stop for reliable news);
  • Forced commitment (money as a “commitment device”); and
  • Quality: After trying out a newspaper, some participants realised the quality of this news was better than the free news.

On the bright side, the research suggested subscription culture among the youth is ingrained, through reference price points set by Spotify and Netflix accounts.

“The centrality of these digital services to how young participants think about paying for news is further attested by their suggestion to create shareable news subscriptions and by how subscription saturation – or ‘subscription fatigue’ – was a reason not to subscribe to news,” Groot Kormelink said.

“More generally, price seemed to be the main category where age played a role in how participants perceived paying for news. For younger participants, budget constraints were a main concern. However, for older participants [the concern] wasn’t so much paying for news itself. [It was] the high – and in their eyes unfair – price of long-term subscriptions.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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  • I cancelled our subscription to our local newspaper after around thirty years having it. I now subscribe to Daily Maverick which, together with other free sources and posts by friends seems to satisfy my need for news.

  • I subscribe to DM. I don’t buy other newspapers: poor journalism( biased, badly researched) too much celebrity nonsense and sport.

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