Slightly less than half of Americans in the survey say they do not pay for news from a newspaper, magazine, news app, news site, or donation to nonprofit journalism. Nonetheless, many of those who do not pay for these sources still follow a great deal of news, just less than subscribers do.
For instance, many of those who don’t pay for news are heavy news consumers. Among people who mention a specific news source they regularly use but don’t pay for, 56 percent see news multiple times a day, another 23 percent say they follow news daily, and just 21 percent see news less than daily.
Rather than strictly a question of behavior, a more subtle but decisive factor in who pays is how important people feel it is to keep up with the news in the first place. For many of those who do not pay for news, keeping up with news is important, but they do not view it as critical in the way payers do.
In all, 37 percent of nonpayers say following news is very or extremely important (compared with 60 percent of those who do pay) while about half (47 percent) say it is moderately important (compared with 33 percent of news subscribers who rate it as only moderately important). And 16 percent of nonpayers say it is not very or not all important to keep up with news. (That number is 6 percent among payers.)
As noted above, many people who do not subscribe to news often still actively seek it out, which may make them an interesting group for publishers to identify. About half of people who do not pay for a news-specific source still say they actively seek out news (51 percent) while the other half say they mostly bump into news (48 percent).
Payers and nonpayers tend to use different types of sources, and payers are more likely to identify a print source as the one they use most frequently. Among those who pay for a source, 61 percent identify a print source as the one they use most frequently, while among those who use a free source, 21 percent identify a print source.
Still, cell phones and television are the top devices for getting news for everyone—those who pay for news and those who do not.
Those who do not pay for a specific news source receive news from a mix of both traditional news platforms and newer digital platforms. About 3 in 4 nonpayers receive news from AM/FM radio, and a similar portion get news via cable or satellite television.
Three-quarters of nonpayers also get news from social media.[ref Respondents were asked if they got news from seven specific social media sites with the following question, “These days many people get their news and information from social media. Do you ever get any news from… ?” Seventy-five percent report getting news from at least one of the sites. In a separate section, the survey asked, “For each of the following types of media, please indicate whether you have used it for free in the last year, or not. [Social media sites].” In this format, 54 percent say they have used social media sites for news. About 5 percent of respondents, 134 people, say yes to the general question about getting news on social media, but did not identify a specific platform in the earlier section.] (It is the same for payers). About a third of nonpayers also get news and information from a news app, go to online-only news sources, and get news from broadcast television or newspapers.
Interestingly, those who do not pay for news follow similar topics to those who do pay. In the survey, we asked people to choose the three topics they most closely follow.
As you can see from the chart below, the rank order of topics for people who pay for news and those who don’t pay is nearly identical. For those who subscribe to a specific news source, the numbers for each topic merely tend to be higher.
There are only a few differences: News subscribers are more likely to follow news about the economy and business. They are somewhat less likely than nonsubscribers to follow news about both traffic and weather and crime and public safety.
Payers and nonpayers tend to use their top sources differently, partly due to the fact that payers are more likely to use print. Payers are more likely to share their paid source’s content with others and use its coupons compared to nonpayers. On the other hand, nonpayers are more likely to use their free source’s app (35 percent vs. 25 percent). There is little difference between payers and nonpayers, however, when it comes to visiting the source’s website or following it on social media.
Those who pay for news tend to have more positive views about the paid source they use than those who do not pay for their regular source. In particular, those who pay for news are more likely than those who do not to say it is easy to find information they care about from their source (72 percent vs. 63 percent). Similarly, 61 percent of those who pay for news say the news and information from their source is very or completely reliable compared with 43 percent of those who do not pay for the source. These findings suggest there is clearly a link between trust and paying for news. But the differences are not so large as to suggest trust is all there is to it.
Interestingly, there is not a significant difference between people who pay for a source and people who use a free source when it comes to beliefs about how easy it is to get similar content from other sources. Even a majority of people who pay for a news source say it is easy to get similar news from other sources. We think this finding is interesting. It suggests the presence of alternative sources, while important, does not determine why some people pay and others don’t. Other more subtle factors are at play as well.
Why people don’t pay for news
In the same way that we asked those who subscribe to news sources why they did so, we also asked those who did not pay for news the reasons they chose not to do so. People were asked about six potential factors.
Here, the reasons people give for not paying tend to vary based on people’s age, education, gender, and race.
Overall, the biggest reason people say they don’t pay for news, which over half cite as one of the main reasons, is they can find plenty of free content.
[pullquote align=right]’I’m a cheapskate,’ said Sara, a 40-year-old from Phoenix. ‘I don’t want to pay for news when I feel like it’s everywhere.'[/pullquote]
In addition to being able to see free content, 17 percent also say they can get access to paid content in other ways. Some of these non-payers are even quite sophisticated about it. For instance, Michael, a 69-year-old newspaper reader from Phoenix, noted in our in-depth interviews that there are ways to get paid content for free, like articles from The Wall Street Journal, “if you know how to do it.”
In addition to these people who are navigating carefully around pay meters, another 41 percent of nonpayers admit that they are not interested enough in news to pay for it.
About a quarter of those who don’t pay for news say it is too expensive.
Yet trust in media seems to be a smaller factor here. Despite the recent debates over trust and the media, just 15 percent say they don’t trust the media enough to pay for it. And 13 percent say they are too busy.
Men tend to see more alternatives to paying for news sources than do women. They’re more likely than women to say they do not pay because there is plenty of free content (60 percent vs. 48 percent) and because they can get access to the paid content in other ways (20 percent vs. 14 percent).
Beyond being able to get news for free, however, there are no significant differences between men and women when it comes to citing other reasons for not paying for news.
One potentially challenging finding for publishers is that people with more education are also more likely than those with less education to say they can find alternatives to paid sources.
Fully 71 percent of college graduates who don’t pay for news cite the broad availability of free content, as do 61 percent of those with some college education and 42 percent of high school graduates.
But as with men and women, there are no significant differences related to education when it comes to other reasons people say they do not pay for news.
There are also racial and ethnic differences related to believing there is plenty of free content available. Sixty-one percent of whites say there is plenty of free content available compared with 40 percent of Hispanics and 39 percent of African Americans.
There are also some differences by generation in the reasons people say they do not pay for news. To begin with, younger adults tend to cite more reasons for not paying for news than older adults.
Among them, younger adults are more likely than their elders to say they do not pay because they are not interested enough in the content; they’re also more likely to say they’re too busy.
[pullquote align=right]As Alicia, a 30-year-old new mother from Phoenix, put it, she used to read ‘Cosmo and that kind of thing, but I think I just had kids and I didn’t have the time to sit there and go through my magazines.'[/pullquote]
Indeed, about half of 18-34 year olds say they are not interested in the content compared with just 1 in 4 of those age 65 and older. And younger adults are about three times as likely as those 65 and older to say they are too busy.
The traditional view once was that these younger Americans will age into news with time. But given the rise of news organizations aimed at younger adults, and the relatively high news consumption rates of young adults on social media and elsewhere, the reality may be more challenging for news organizations than that. Traditional publications may be failing to present the news in ways that engage younger generations, and they may not entirely be covering the right topics.
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