There are signs of hope. That is, if you believe the latest Digital News Report 2018 from Reuters Institute. The word “hope” doesn’t feature very often in news media reports, and when it makes a rare appearance, you pay attention.

This optimism refers to an observation that news consumption on social media, and especially on Facebook, has fallen. More importantly, it is also linked to the fact more people are paying for digital news and are intending to do so.

A recent report suggests media companies are moving toward higher-quality content and a stronger emphasis on reader payment.
A recent report suggests media companies are moving toward higher-quality content and a stronger emphasis on reader payment.

This latest report notes “change is in the air with many media companies shifting models towards higher quality content and more emphasis on reader payment.”

Reader payments for digital news have been, and continue to be, one of the hottest topics in the news industry — and for good reason. Multiple academic studies have researched aspects of people’s willingness to pay for news, mostly concluding people still don’t want to pay for digital news content, or at least for general news.

The Reuters Institute’s report shows more people are paying for digital news, and the likelihood for paying for news is increasing: Almost one in five of those paying for digital news says they are likely to continue their payments in the next 12 months.

In the United States, 16% of people have paid for online news, in Australia the figure is 20%, in Germany it is 11%, and in the United Kingdom it is 7%. In Norway, 30% of people have paid for online news, in Sweden it is 26%, and it’s 18% in Finland. An earlier report from INMA already noted Scandinavian countries have emerged as “a gold standard for digital subscriptions.”

One aspect in the Reuters report is particularly interesting. It observes that two-thirds of people are not aware newspapers are struggling to make money from digital news. The report suggests those readers who are aware of digital newspapers’ losses are more likely to fund them. When asked if people would consider reader payments to a news outlet unable to cover its costs of production, 20% said they were likely to pay for online news in the future.

The report concludes The Guardian is a good example of raising its readers’ awareness about the costs to produce quality journalism. This campaigning seems to pay off as its memberships and donations have risen.

So, is right to think that if newspapers openly remind their readers about difficulties to raise digital revenue, people will pay? Perhaps, but I am not sure, and we need some more evidence.

Another report by Pew Research Center shows that, globally, digital advertising is growing, but its estimates about digital circulation numbers are muddled. Based on the AAM data, the centre calculates that, in the United States, digital circulation fell 9% last year. However, if The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are included in calculations, digital circulation was up 10% on weekdays. Which one to believe?

The same report observes that, in the United States, newspapers’ growth in digital audiences has stalled. In the last quarter of 2017, newspapers in the United States had 11.5 million monthly unique visitors (in 2016, the figure was 11.7 million). Hence 2017 was the “the first year since we began tracking the trend that did not show a double-digit rise in Web traffic.”

Is this concerning, or simply a consequence of newspapers’ focus on reader engagement rather than chasing clicks?