More people are paying for online news, but resistance continues

By Dr. Merja Myllylahti

Auckland University of Technology (AUT)

Auckland, New Zealand


As always, the latest Reuters Digital News Report 2021 offers some encouraging and less uplifting news for the news publishing industry.

Let us start with the positives. In 2021, more people are paying for digital news content than over the last year in the form of subscriptions, donations, or memberships. The report shows 17% of people across 20 countries have paid for some kind of online news content (the report has tracked these 20 markets and the willingness to pay for news since 2016). The number of those paying grew 2% from the last year and is up 5% from 2016.

When people subscribe to news sites, they tend to choose national publications versus local ones.
When people subscribe to news sites, they tend to choose national publications versus local ones.

Then, there is the bad news. A large proportion of people continue to resist paying, and “overall progress remains slow.” The report, which covers 46 markets, notes that “most people are not interested enough in news, or do not have sufficient disposable income to prioritise news over other parts of their life.” Others resist paying because they like to scroll news through multiple sites, not just one specific source.

Another problematic issue is that those who pay for news pay “just a few big national brands, reinforcing the winner takes most dynamics.” For example:

  • In the United States, 45% pay for news content coming either from The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Wall Street Journal.
  • In the United Kingdom, The Times, Telegraph, and Guardian account for 52% of payments.
  • In Finland, the leading newspaper brand Helsingin Sanomat gets almost 50% of all subscription payments.

This observation rings true based on some latest subscription numbers. For example, Telegraph Media Group recently recorded a 76% rise in operating profit boosted by digital subscription revenue. The number of its subscribers grew by 139,00 between December 2019 and 2020, and in March this year, it recorded 600,000 subscribers. The Economist has also reported on substantial subscriber growth — 90,000 in a single year — and is recording 1.12 million subscribers this year, “its largest-ever increase in a single year.”

In May, The New York Times reported it had added 301,000 digital subscribers in the first quarter of the year, having 6.9 million online subscribers for news, cooking, and games apps. It noted that while it is on target to gain 10 million subscribers by 2025, in the first quarter this year it saw the “lowest increase since the third quarter of 2019.”

The developments in the different markets are uneven. It is perhaps encouraging that, in the United States and Norway, “up to half of those paying” have started to subscribe also to local or regional newspapers as well. In general, people in Nordic countries are avid subscribers to online news compared to many other markets.

In Norway, 45% of those surveyed pay for online news; in Sweden the percentage is 30%. In the United States, 21% of those surveyed have paid for online news, and, in Finland, 20% have done so. In the United Kingdom, only 8% of respondents have paid for digital news. The UK number is puzzlingly low. The Reuters report notes, in the United Kingdom, “headline rate has been hard to shift, even if a handful of publishers are attracting new subscribers running into tens of thousands.”

About Dr. Merja Myllylahti

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