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Special Reports – Economic Attitudes

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By the Project For Excellence In Journalism and the Pew Internet & American Life Project
Economic Attitudes

The biggest question facing online journalism today is how to pay for it. With revenue declining both online and in legacy platforms, news organizations say they are intensifying the search for new models. What kind of new advertising options are out there? How will users respond? And would consumers in the marketplace accept pay walls?

To learn more, PEJ and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project collaborated on a national phone survey in January 2010 to explore consumers’ willingness to pay for news online and their attitudes and behavior in response to online advertising.  (A separate section of the report examines the models themselves.)

Over all, the evidence suggests the outlook is difficult both for pay walls and for online display advertising. While most people have not been asked to pay for content, even among the most avid news consumers online, only about one in five at this point say they would be willing to pay, and this does not include less voracious news consumers. At the same time, the vast majority of those online, 8 out of 10, say they basically ignore online ads.

In short, a good deal must change, the data suggests, before the digital age will begin to sustain itself.

Pay Walls

About 71% of internet users, or 53% of all American adults, get news online today, a number that has held relatively steady in recent years.

Most of these online news consumers graze across multiple sites without having a primary one that they rely on. Only 35% of online news consumers have a favorite site.

To put it another way, 65% of online news consumers do not have a site that is so important to them that it stands out in their minds above all other sites they visit.

The users who do have a favorite site are pretty faithful. Some 65% of them check in with that favorite site at least once a day.

Yet even among these most loyal news consumers, only a minority (19%)1 said they would be willing to pay for news online, including those who already do so and those who would be willing to if asked.

Instead, a large majority – 82% – of those with a favorite site said they would find somewhere else to get the news.

Because so few online news consumers even have a favorite site this translates to only 7% of all people who get news online having a favorite online news source that they say they would pay for.

This is a sign of just how much initial difficulty the movement toward pay walls could have.2

In sum, there appears to be only a very small cohort of voracious news consumers who have to have their news from a particular site, even if they have to pay for it.  The vast majority of online news consumers, though, seem willing to browse for news from many sites, do not have a favorite online news source, and even if they do, are not willing to pay for that site’s content.

This is not to say that resistance might notbreakdown over time.

Are Users Willing to Pay for Their Favorite News Sites?
Percent of Respondents
Would you continue to use your favorite site if there was a pay wall?
Source: PRC-Project for Excellence in Journalism and PRC-Internet & American Life Project Online News Survey – December 28, 2009-January 19, 2010.  N=2,259.  Margin of error is +/-2 percentage points.

There is evidence that some kind of flat fee – a networked microaccounting system rather than a pay-per-click  system — might have better success in the marketplace.  We asked people if they had to pay for content from their favorite site, would they prefer a subscription that would allow them to access all the content from the site or a pay-as-you-go plan where they would pay only for the articles and features they wanted to see. A substantial majority of those with a favorite site (54%) opted for the subscription model while less than half as many (24%) picked the a la carte option.3

One technical and business challenge here is this: If people want to pay by subscription, but information is increasingly disaggregated across the web – then how could they do so without having to have multiple, confusing, subscription relationships?

Consumer Attitudes Toward Payment Plans
Percent of Respondents
Source: PRC-Project for Excellence in Journalism and PRC-Internet & American Life Project Online News Survey – December 28, 2009-January 19, 2010.  N=2,259.  Margin of error is +/-2 percentage points.All these findings speak to the natural disadvantage of news content: Most news is covered by more than one organization and people do not place enough value on the difference between the various reports. In other words, if a user had to pay for a New York Times article on Haiti, evidence suggests that he or she would just look for another source that could provide the basic information. The nuances of depth or breadth in the pay story may not be valued enough to induce payment over a free alternative

Thus, if the news industry is going to make headway with pay walls, they are going to have to break through what for now appears to be continuing reluctance, even among its most avid consumers.4

Some additional data suggest that people may not ever get to any full news article at all. Instead, according to data from Outsell, fully 44% of visitors to Google News just scan headlines and never click on the articles themselves.5

Consumer Attitudes Toward Advertisements

Attitudes toward advertising online are also complicated. Fully 81% of online news users say they do not mind online advertising because it allows the content to be free.  But 77% say they also ignore the ads (42% online news consumers say they “never” click on one of those ads and 35% say they do so “hardly ever”).

How Oftent Users Click on Advertisements
Percent of Respondents
Source: PRC-Project for Excellence in Journalism and PRC-Internet & American Life Project Online News Survey – December 28, 2009-January 19, 2010.  N=2,259.  Margin of error is +/-2 percentage points.
The survey data do reveal, however, that the heaviest online news consumers, as well as the most connected younger adults, are more likely to click on ads, but only marginally so. While only 21% of all online news users say they click on online ads at least sometimes, that number goes up to 28% of those who go online daily and 37% who visit at least six sites daily. And for those under 30, about 26% sometimes click on online ads as do 30% of those who get news on their cellphones. Still, even among these groups, ad consumption is low.

Which online news users are most likely to click on news site advertisements?
% of each group of online news users who say they click on ads often or sometimes
All online news users 21%
Heavy users
Follow news all or most of the time 25
Get news online about 9 or more topics 27
Go online to get news daily 28
Use at least 3 offline news platforms daily 28
Get news forwarded to them through email, alerts or social networking site posts 30
Use at least 6 online news sources daily 37
Future Users
Wireless internet users 25
Age 18 to 30 26
Get news on cell phone 30

Over all, the data reveal the tenuous position of news producers. Unless consumer attitudes shift with a changing reality, news operations are looking at conventional advertising that will not work online or pay wall strategies that may drive down traffic.

For online news to become a profitable enterprise, either consumer attitudes need to change or the industry must do more. That more could be developing new better-targeted products that people are willing to pay for; new forms of advertising that work better, including local search; or new forms of revenue other than display advertising, including perhaps online retailing.

Elsewhere in this report, we discussed the findings of a joint survey by PEJ and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project about the news audience and how its consumption behaviors are changing in the digital era. There are clear implications from these combined findings for those who are trying to figure out how to pay for news operations.

The fact that almost two-thirds of online news consumers do not have a favorite website strikes us as important. That is not good news for those already worried about branding issues and it makes it even tougher for those whose brands are not particularly well embedded in consumers’ minds. The fact that people now range across various news platforms (radio, TV, print, online) to get their news on a typical day makes it tougher than it used to be to establish a brand on any platform and that problem is compounded on the internet. Moreover, the fact that aggregator sites are among the most popular online news destinations is a difficult reality for news organizations that makes their product more of a commodity and less of a part of a “package” of stories that is put together by a team of editors with a special “branded” character.

There is some evidence from the survey that particular news organizations, most notably cable television news organizations such as CNN and Fox, have been at least somewhat successful in translating their offline brand to online loyalty.  For the minority of online news consumers who do have a favorite site, television news organizations top the list.  And among all online news consumers, television news organization websites are second in popularity behind news aggregators.

Still, it is clear that many Internet users treat news as a commodity. And if among the 35% of online news consumers who have a favorite site, only 19% would pay for access to that favorite site if it were to erect a pay wall, many must believe they could get the same information or something good enough for free elsewhere.

At the same time, those who want to find new revenue streams for news operations can take away some hope from other survey findings. Online, news consumers do not range very far. The majority say they use two-to-five sites to get their news. This could be taken as a sign that they are discriminating to a degree. If brands do not totally matter to them, well-known news organizations probably figure somewhere in that mix of “reliable” sites in consumers’ news searches. This could suggest that strategies to serve niches – to be the site that is reliable for a particular kind of information – might yield some paying customers and niche-oriented advertisers.

The PEJ-PIP survey also shows there might be rewards to news organizations that embrace social networking strategies to build audiences. Our earlier report found that news is a social currency for many people and that they rely on their friends and colleagues at times to alert them about news or help them discuss the meaning of particular news events. Eventually, the news operations that develop social networking strategies and distribution mechanisms well might be able to convince advertisers that they have special access to attractive news consumers – especially those who influence the tastes of others. That could bring in more ad revenues from firms that are keen to participate in this increasingly word-of-mouth world.

The earlier PEJ-PIP report identified two classes of especially avid news consumers whose interests are so keen that they might be coaxed into paying something for special news products that either focus on the speedy delivery of information or high-quality, high-value information. The groups were the 33% of cell-phone owners who get news on their handheld devices and the 37% of Internet users who are active participators in the news making, news delivery, and news commentary processes. It is easy to imagine that these are people for whom the economic or social or political value of being the “first to know” or the “first to comment” has real meaning. They might be willing to pay at least a bit for news organizations that can truly deliver an extra increment of speed or in-depth material that is unique.


Footnotes

1. Includes both those who said they would pay for their favorite site if asked and those who say they already do.

2. Heavier online news consumers, those who use three or more online news sites on a typical day, are slightly more likely than those who use fewer sites to say they would pay for content at their favorite online site.  Yet even among this group, only 46% have a favorite online news source, and just 10% have a favorite site they are willing to pay for.

3. Those with annual incomes of $75,000 or more are only slightly more likely to favor a subscription plan, while the lowest income respondents (those earning less than $30,000 annually) are more likely to prefer a pay-as-you-go-plan.

4. Other surveys similarly find a declining interest in the pay-per-article approach. The Accenture survey found that support among media industry leaders (beyond just news) had diminished greatly over the last three years. When asked what they believed will be the most prevalent business model in their sector of media, just 8% said pay-per-article. This is down from 23% in 2007.

5. Robin Wauters, “Report: 44% of Google News Visitors Scan Headlines, Don’t Click Through,” TechCrunch, January 19, 2010.