Who pays for news? Why do they pay? Who does not pay for news and why not?

Earlier this year, we conducted a nationally representative survey to answer these fundamental questions facing the news industry.

In the second phase of the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, we set out to learn more about news subscribers and to build on the insights uncovered in the previous survey. Specifically, what can news organizations learn from deeper knowledge of the emotional and behavioral factors that affect people’s subscription decisions?

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Using a Human-Centered Design (HCD) approach, which prioritizes deep listening as a way to empathize with users and uncover the values and motivations underlying their habits, we conducted in-depth, one-on-one interviews with 15 carefully selected people across the country who represent different extremes in news subscription behavior. They included a range, from those who have never paid for news to self-described “subscription junkies” who spend more than $100-a-month on news and specialty publications. The participants were diverse in race and age; we also selected for a mix of political leanings as well as people from rural, suburban and urban environments.

Most significant of the findings: We identified three news subscriber personas or “archetypes,” each with distinctly different mindsets about paying for news and information.

We have given each archetype a name and will go into more detail on each of them below. In brief:

  • Civically Committed support missions and initiatives that reflect their personal values and commit to a higher-than-average number of subscriptions.
  • Thrifty Transactors pay for practical value but are highly selective about which publications make the cut.
  • Elusive Engagers are generally subscription-averse and view news and information as a commodity that’s easily obtained for free.

The difference between these archetypes underscores that there is not one revenue strategy or funnel that can apply to an entire audience. Further, segmenting news subscribers by mindsets as opposed to (or in addition to) modes of consumption (print vs. digital) or by demographics presents publishers with a considerably different way of thinking about acquisition and monetization for each archetype.

There is not one revenue strategy or funnel that can apply to an entire audience.

Other notable insights related to how people think about news subscriptions, which may cross more than one of these three archetype groups:

  • The news subscription process is generally not a pleasant one. At best, subscribers say, it’s mildly annoying. At worst, it’s a frustrating, cumbersome and inefficient experience that has a lasting effect and can make many customers wary of future subscription commitments.
  • To attract subscribers in a noisy news landscape, news organizations must excel at a few key coverage areas instead of trying to cling to the notion of being equally comprehensive about everything–a publication of record. This is a finding that came out in our quantitative research and was strongly reinforced in our qualitative in-depth interviews.
  • Print/digital/audio usage is driven by circumstances, not just preferences. While some people may consider themselves to be primarily consumers of one method over another, they often consume news in different ways depending on where they are and what’s convenient. This is especially important for publishers to keep in mind when developing subscription offerings. Print, digital and audio are behaviors, not distinct audiences.
  • Audiences are extremely sensitive to perceived bias in news media since the 2016 election. Subscriptions are being purchased because of the political climate, but also sometimes canceled because readers think coverage is unfair, or in other cases not aggressive enough. This is something publishers need to talk about internally, think about in the way they present news and be open with their audiences. There is a lot of suspicion about the motives of publishers and journalists, even those who strive to be independent. Being more transparent about the journalistic process, as well as identifying and being blunt with yourself about unconscious newsroom biases, are both important issues to wrestle with.
  • The potential subscribers for local news are not just people who reside in the geography, but also anyone who has a meaningful present or past connection to the area. Community in a digital context means community of interest, not just geography, and some of those ties, such as to sports teams, colleges, past places people have lived, can be important parts of people’s lives in an era of mobility. These are important audiences to identify, understand and serve, and developing acquisition and subscriber strategies for these different audiences becomes an important new model as publishers move beyond advertising.

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