Chapter 5

Digital subscribers: What motivates them to pay and how they are different from print readers

Digital subscriptions pose unique business opportunities for newspapers—they can be sold to anyone, anywhere, and have higher margins unhindered by printing or delivery costs.

Digital readers also leave a data trail of analytics and email addresses that empower a sophisticated publisher to direct marketing efforts at the best prospects.

But the digital subscriber tends to be a different kind of person motivated by different things than print readers.

In our sample, those who prefer digital tend to be younger, male, and more educated. They are more commonly found in the suburbs of large or mid-sized metro areas. Of course, digital newspaper subscribers across the country could differ in terms of demographics.

Digital readers in this study are more often attracted by good coverage of a particular topic, and half of them are triggered to subscribe by hitting a paywall meter.

Understanding these and other differences is essential to smartly targeting potential digital and print subscribers in the right ways.

In this section, we examine those differences. First, a note on how we sorted out “print” and “digital” people. Subscribers were asked whether they get print copies of papers, digital content, or both. Those who receive both were then asked which format they prefer. Those who only get print copies or get both but prefer print are classified as “print.” Those who only get digital content or get both but prefer digital are classified as “digital.”

Among the responding subscribers, 71 percent prefer or only use the print paper, and 26 percent prefer or only use digital content, while 3 percent declined to state a preference. We then can dig deeper into each of those groups to see what led them to subscribe to their newspaper and what they value about their subscription.

Respondents who prefer digital tend to be younger and are more likely to have a college degree

There are demographic differences in the sample between print and digital subscribers, and these differences could be related to format preferences or could be the result of the specific respondents who completed the survey. It is important to understand that demographics and news behaviors or attitudes such as platform preferences are all highly related.

Looking first at the print-preference respondents, these folks are about half men and half women. Nearly 7 in 10 are 60 years old or older. Six in 10 have a college degree, and 31 percent earn $100,000 or more a year. Nearly half are Democrats; 37 percent are Republicans.

Digital subscribers, on the other hand, are more likely to be male (59 percent) and are less likely to be older than print subscribers (57 percent are 60 years old or older).

More digital respondents have a college degree than print respondents (77 percent vs. 64 percent), and those in the digital group also tend to be higher-income, with 44 percent earning $100,000 a year or more.

Respondents who prefer digital are more likely to be Democrats (56 percent) and less likely to be Republicans than print respondents (31 percent vs. 37 percent).

Digital subscribers are more likely than print readers to be urban, subscribe to large metro

Urban area 26% 34%
Suburban area 57% 47%
Rural area 16% 19%
Paper size
Small 18% 7%
Mid-size 17% 7%
Small metro 35% 24%
Large metro 30% 62%

Similar factors lead digital and print respondents to subscribe, but there are some important differences

When asked to tell us in their own words why they decided to subscribe, are print readers different than digital? While they have some similarities, it is fair to say that digital readers have some greater degree of intentionality. They tend to hunt more for the content they want.

To begin with, print readers most often cite a desire for local news, the convenience of print or home delivery, and seeing a promotion or discount on the subscription.

Digital readers also most frequently cite a desire for local news.

But for respondents who either subscribed only to the digital edition or said they preferred to read digitally, the interest in access to news about the local community is followed by wanting coverage of a particular topic, or for trust and quality reasons. And that in turn is followed by hitting a paywall or article limit.

Asking about the importance of specific background factors provides a similar picture. Print readers say access to local news was very or extremely important to their decision to subscribe, followed by a promotion or discount, and noticing a number of useful or interesting articles.

For digital readers, access to local news is again most popular, but many also say they noticed a number of useful or interesting articles, were looking for a source that covered a particular topic or issue, and wanted to support local journalism.

Reason for subscribing Digital Print
Publication factors
Received discounts /promotions 25% 39%
Coverage of a particular topic 38% 25%
Want accurate news 30% 32%
Want coupons 6% 25%
Consumer factors
Wanted access to local news 62% 60%
Wanted to support local journalism 38% 29%
Recently moved to the area 15% 17%
Have more time than before 6% 10%
Have more money than before 7% 8%
Friends or family used it 6% 8%
Got it at work or school 5% 5%
Both consumer and publication factors
Noticed many useful articles 47% 36%

Data Source: Question: There are a lot of reasons why a person may decide to subscribe to a news source. Here is a list of factors that might have crossed your mind as you considered subscribing to [SOURCE]. How important was each of these factors as you considered subscribing to [SOURCE]?

Media Insight Project

Then, when asked about the specific moment or reason they chose to subscribe, half of print readers say a discount or promotion triggered them to subscribe, followed by smaller numbers who cite a desire for coupons (26 percent) or having recently moving to the area (17 percent).

For digital readers, the specific moments or reasons they chose to subscribe appear to be platform related. Half say that they kept hitting a limit in the number of articles they could read, and 38 percent mention a discount or promotion.

Digital Print
Publication factors
Discount / promotional offer 38% 47%
Wanted coupons 7% 26%
Wanted extra subscriber benefits 8% 10%
Kept hitting meter limit 47% 5%
Wanted fewer online ads 3% 3%
Consumer factors
Recently moved to the area. 13% 17%
Job/life change 13% 11%
Responding to attacks on the press 11% 6%
Saw message about supporting journalism 10% 5%
Friends persuaded me to subscribe 3% 4%
Other factors
I had just read an article I really liked 11% 5%
I cannot recall a specific reason 7% 12%
Other 2% 2%

Data Source: Question: While people may be thinking about subscribing to a news source for a while, there can be a specific moment or reason that serves as a tipping point when someone makes the decision to subscribe. Which, if any, of the following triggered your final decision to subscribe to [SOURCE].

Media Insight Project

Print and digital subscribers cite similar reasons for using their newspaper

Print subscribers cite a diverse array of reasons why they use the source they pay for. And digital subscribers largely agree with them on the importance of each factor.

This shows that print and digital subscribers use news for similar reasons. From a list of 12 ways in which people use news, there are only two in which digitally oriented subscribers differ from print oriented.

For one, print-oriented readers are more than twice as likely as digital-oriented subscribers to say that the news helps them save money (34 percent vs. 15 percent), driven by print’s unique edge in coupons.

Digital-oriented subscribers, meanwhile, are driven more by coverage of a particular topic they care about (60 percent vs. 49 percent), although it is important to many in both groups.

Digital Print
Helps me get accurate information 80% 77%
It deals fairly with all sides 68% 69%
It is willing to admit its mistakes 67% 70%
Helps me stay informed to be a better citizen 65% 62%
It acts as a check on political leaders 64% 62%
It is very good at covering a topic 60% 49%
It cares about the people it reports on 45% 47%
Helps me talk to friends 39% 42%
Is enjoyable or entertaining 35% 43%
Helps me care for myself or my family 21% 25%
Helps me save money 15% 34%
It helps me do my job 15% 10%

Data Source: Question: People use news for many reasons. When it comes to the biggest reasons you use [SOURCE], how important to you is it that it…?

Media Insight Project

Print and digital respondents value different subscription benefits

Print subscribers and digital subscribers differ in what they see as the biggest benefits of their subscriptions.

Print subscribers most enjoy their bundled access to print and digital news (52 percent vs. 26 percent for digital), suggesting that even print-minded subscribers make healthy use of digital access at certain times of day. Print readers also say coupons or discounts are an important benefit (42 percent vs. 11 percent for digital).

Digital subscribers, on the other hand, most value benefits like getting an unlimited number of digital stories and getting news only available to paying customers.

Both print and digital subscribers are likely to say they feel good about supporting the news organization.

 Benefit Digital Print
Unlimited number of digital stories 62% 7%
Access to giveaways or other benefits 4% 8%
Access to publisher events 7% 11%
I get exclusive news 38% 26%
Supporting the news organization 46% 40%
Coupons or discounts 11% 42%
I get access to print and digital 26% 52%

Data Source: Question: Now that you subscribe to [SOURCE], which of the following do you consider the biggest benefit of your subscription? Please select up to three (3).

Media Insight Project