Canceling that free trial: Four reasons people are unwilling to subscribe to a news organization
Ask media types about what news organizations need to survive in the future, and almost invariably the conversation these days will emphasize “reader revenue” of some kind: subscriptions, memberships, donations — any means, old or new, of getting people to pay for news more readily than they have in the past.
The need is obvious, particularly for newspapers: As advertising revenues slacken amid the transition from legacy to digital platforms, there is little choice but to offset those losses with greater direct support from audiences.
But many people — indeed, the vast majority — remain stubbornly unwilling to pay for news (especially online news). The 2021 Reuters Institute Digital News Report found that across 20 countries where publishers have been actively pursuing digital subscriptions, only 17% of respondents said they had paid for online news in the past year in some form (through a subscription, donation, or one-off payment). This was, in fact, an improvement from five years earlier (when 12% reported paying), and the numbers do look a bit better in wealthy countries such as the U.S. (where 21% pay for online news, and some have more than one subscription).
The overall uptick, however, isn’t enough to soothe the concerns of media organizations, many of which are stuck in a “purgatorial space” between print and digital: where digital subscriptions aren’t robust enough yet to justify abandoning print altogether, even as those digital subscriptions threaten to cannibalize print all the same.
So, it matters quite a lot to understand why people will pay for news (or not), and what might be done about that.
Thus arrives on the scene this new article in Journalism, “Why people don’t pay for news: A qualitative study.” It’s written by Tim Groot Kormelink of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. While many scholars have long focused on quantifying news consumption (e.g., days per week spent with news) and people’s attitudes toward it (e.g., how people feel about news as expressed via survey questions), Groot Kormelink is a leading researcher in studying how audiences experience the news in their day-to-day lives. And, in this study, 68 participants in the Netherlands were given a three-week subscription to a newspaper of their choice and then interviewed about their experience afterward. “As such, rather than capturing their general attitudes toward paying for news, the study grounds people’s reasons for (not) paying for news in their actual experiences with having access to a news subscription.”
By one basic measure, study participants weren’t impressed with that free trial: after their test subscription ended, none of them explicitly said they would convert to a paid subscription.
Study participants had four primary motivations for not subscribing: price (no surprise there!), adequate news available elsewhere for free, concerns about commitment (i.e., not wanting to bind oneself), and delivery and technical problems.
On the first point (price), one particularly interesting finding popped up: For younger participants, digital subscription services like Spotify and Netflix had set a reference point for digital news. Indeed, “this study suggests these services may even create a rather exact price point in young people’s mind: the price of a shared Netflix or Spotify account.” This led some participants to suggest that paying for news should be more shareable. Intriguingly, this notion comes at a time when many people are wearying of “subscription fatigue” and when the services themselves, like Netflix, are looking to crack down on password sharing.
“Another finding that stands out,” the study notes, “is that when referencing price, participants had a full print subscription in mind, even when their preferred subscription type was a less costly weekend-only or digital subscription. Some were surprised by how affordable these alternative subscription types were, suggesting it could be worthwhile for news media to more strongly advertise these prices.”
With regard to one of the other issues, commitment, participants “were not just wary of being stuck with difficult-to-cancel subscriptions, but also did not want to commit and thus limit themselves to one medium,” Groot Kormelink writes.
There was some ambiguity about this: On the one hand, people felt like the commitment of a subscription would “discipline” them to follow through on something they feel like they should be doing (i.e., reading the news); yet, at the same time, participants, when they had a trial subscription, had a hard time actually getting themselves to read the news. (On that note, Groot Kormelink noted in a Twitter thread that he has a paper-in-progress showing that “when you do get people to subscribe, the next challenge starts: getting them to actually use their subscription.”)
Ultimately, study participants also described future scenarios in which they might be more willing to pay: if a news subscription were cheaper, offered a one-stop source for reliable coverage, brought added value through higher-quality news, and, again, served as a “commitment device” to help them build the habit of reading the news.
All of us likely know people who have made intentional decisions to avoid the news over the past several years, and perhaps some of us have been those people during particularly upsetting news cycles or difficult personal circumstances. Scholars have been looking to determine who doesn’t consume news and why — what scholars call news avoidance — through a variety of lenses, including one we’ve covered in the past.
Johan Lindell and Mikkelsen Båge have a close eye on one of those lenses in particular: social class. Lindell’s previous work, like that of other scholars, has suggested that people in more precarious economic positions are more likely to avoid news. Here, he and Båge put social class into sharper focus, looking at different dimensions of class — economic capital (income) and cultural capital (education and class upbringing) — and avoidance of different types of news (“quality” and “popular” press).
Using an annual mail-in survey of 10,000 Swedes, they found that making distinctions in those dimensions is significant. Both low economic and cultural capital predicted greater news avoidance overall, but only cultural capital was significantly related to quality vs. popular news avoidance. Specifically, people with lower cultural capital were more likely to avoid a quality newspaper (Dagens Nyheter) but less likely to avoid a popular or tabloid newspaper (Aftonbladet). Based on those results, the authors called for more nuance in our discussions of class and news avoidance. They also drew on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to conclude that news avoidance habits are shaped not just by our objective cultural positions, but also by the subjective cultural dispositions (that is, the attitudes and tastes, like tabloids vs. “quality” newspapers) that those positions shape.
The use of alternative media on the left and the right has been a major part of the political story of the past decade, especially in the U.S. and Europe, as right-wing populism has surged. When we talk about how alternative (or partisan) media shape our politics, though, we’re often talking about the national and individual levels. In other words, we tend to think about how consumption of nationally oriented partisan media (like Breitbart or Occupy Democrats) might influence your uncle Larry’s political beliefs or his voting habits.
But Atkinson and his colleagues at Bowling Green State University take a different approach: local and structural. They interviewed 11 party leaders in a pseudonymous suburban/rural county in the Midwestern U.S. about what role alternative media play in their political habits and work. They found a wide range of roles (as is usually the case), but noted that in some cases, political leaders are spreading news from alternative media specifically to agitate party members — as one party leader put it, to “stoke the fire” and “capitalize on some of that existing anger.”
Those party leaders were either oblivious to, or content with, the nature of the local political environment, but the ones who didn’t use alternative media felt frustrated and isolated by the nastiness and confrontation they saw in local politics. The authors suggested that what they were observing was mediated political fusion — an amalgam of mainstream and activist politics, fueled by alternative media, that was good at incorporating outrage into political mobilization but also alienated more traditional, mainstream-oriented political leaders (and potentially voters).
Nadler has been one of the premier scholars looking at the culture and influence of American conservative media, and in this open-access essay, he offers a useful paradigm for understanding the role those media play in their audiences’ lives. His approach pairs well with the Atkinson study above, taking a deeper look at what’s going on internally for people who are regularly consuming and reacting to the media that’s “stoking the fire.”
Nadler draws on dozens of interviews he’s conducted with conservative news consumers across three different studies, finding a thread running through them related to the role media have in projecting and reinforcing social identity. Nadler notes a strong sense among almost all his interviewees that liberals hold deep contempt for them, drawing on both personal experiences and things they’ve heard about in conservative media. Building this sense of victimization and disrespect, he argues, is a key part of the way conservative media build emotional attachment to group identity. The result, he says, is that audiences feel the media sources’ stories of persecution as their own.
This strong, emotional group identity draws people closer into conservative media, Nadler argues, especially when those media figures then “position themselves as the defenders of their audiences’ besieged identities.” He describes a process in which conservative media engage in therapeutic identity repair, offering to salve the pain (of ostracism and stigma) that they themselves have sought to continually bring before their audiences. Thus, he says, the anger that other commentators and opponents have attributed to the modern right-wing is not spontaneous or solely arising from loss of privilege, but is rooted in a deep sense of the threat and fear of stigma, something continually invoked by conservative media.
One of the enduring ideas regarding media coverage of protests is the “protest paradigm” — the notion that journalists tend to marginalize and delegitimize protests by adhering to routines that emphasize the voices of official sources over protesters and highlight conflict. Those conventions ultimately serve to endorse the status quo and sideline protesters’ concerns, and we’ve seen the pattern play out repeatedly in a variety of contexts.
Cox’s study examines the protest paradigm in the coverage of the protests of racial injustice and police brutality across the U.S. after George Floyd’s death in May 2020. She comes away with a picture of “a shift-in-progress away from the protest paradigm.” In a study of 286 news stories posted to Facebook by six major American news organizations, she finds that about three-quarters of them portrayed protesters and the Black Lives Matter movement positively, with similar proportions framing the police negatively. The most common term used to refer to the events was “protest,” with the words “riot” and “looting” being largely limited to Fox News and The Wall Street Journal.
Fox News was, predictably, the only organization that framed the protesters mostly negatively. Other organization-specific indicators also emerged: CNN emphasized an entertainment/celebrity frame much more than others, MSNBC a political frame, and The Wall Street Journal a culture frame. Across all the findings, Cox concludes that the protest paradigm certainly wasn’t gone from the coverage of these protests, but that perhaps in response to the increased legitimacy their audiences were giving protesters, news organizations may have pivoted away from it in this case.
Over the past decade, native advertising has endured the initial blitz of ethical concern and discourse in the profession to settle in and become more or less an accepted — if uneasy — part of the news industry. Quite a bit of research has examined the effects of native advertising — whether audiences recognize it, and how it affects the site’s credibility — and at how journalists wrestle with its relationship with their autonomy.
Carlson and Locke drill in on that tense, ambiguous relationship between news and advertising inherent in native advertising by looking at the ad side. Specifically, they analyze how the websites of 17 American in-house native advertising content studios present themselves. They find what they call an “underlying centrality of obfuscation” that revolves around two themes: The use of the word “story” as a key identity marker connecting journalism and advertising, and the use of some creative language to imply ties with their organization’s newsroom, without explicitly saying it.
As we’ve seen from other recent research, journalists have often embraced “story” as well, though audiences are skeptical. The other language involved a range of verbs like “inspired by,” “share,” “apply,” and “draft off of” to imply that the native advertising studio shared the values and techniques of their newsroom counterparts, while being careful not to claim any explicit collaboration. (Only The Washington Post was explicit about their disavowal of any collaboration.) Carlson and Locke conclude by noting a self-limiting irony in invoking the trust in their organizations’ newsrooms, which is built in part on their reputations for independence: “The autonomy that native advertising threatens is precisely what these content studio sites celebrate when they invoke the reputation of the news brand.”
Photo of a stack of old newspapers by Utsav Srestha
is being used under an Unsplash License.