In the end, the future of the news industry hangs on whether younger audiences engage with news strongly and if the group often called Millennials is willing to pay for the news directly.
What does the survey indicate about that? To know, we need to take a deeper look at the attitudes of the youngest adult cohort in the sample, adults 18 to 34 years old, and compare their attitudes to their elders. One challenge, whenever doing this, is trying to assess which attitudes have to do with age (and may change with time) and which attitudes have to do with growing up as the first digitally native generation and may not change with time.
Our findings here, as in some past work, show that a majority of younger adult and midlife news payers still consume news several times a day. But for all that, they still do it less often than the oldest Americans.
Among payers, 70 percent of those age 18 to 34 consume news multiple times a day compared with 73 percent of those age 35 to 49, but both of those numbers are lower than among those who are older. Here, fully 79 percent of those age 50 to 64 and 84 percent of those 65 and older say they consume news multiple times a day.
Though they consume news frequently, younger payers take a more moderate view of the importance of keeping up with news than their more enthusiastic older counterparts. About 48 percent of those age 18 to 34 say keeping up with the news is very or extremely important to them, but that number is 71 percent among those age 65 or over.
What about our dividing line between “news seekers” versus “news bumpers” that we think is such a key indicator of whether someone may pay for news—even if they do not pay right now?
The news here is promising for publishers. Among Millennials, about 6 in 10 subscribers are seekers and 4 in 10 are bumpers. That means, first, there are more seekers than bumpers out there to potentially identify and engage with among the youngest audience cohort. It also means that publishers are getting paid even by a sizable number of people who are generally more passive in their news consumption, especially among younger payers.
Older payers follow different topics than the younger payers
The findings also show that younger and older audiences follow different topics, even if they are both subscribers.
Some topics are universal. Subscribers of different ages are equally likely to closely follow sports, news about one’s town or neighborhood, business and international news, news about the environment, and arts and cultures.
But there are other topics where subscribers divide by age. Younger subscribers, for instance, are more interested than older payers in news about science and technology, hobbies, and schools. All except payers age 65 and older follow lifestyle and celebrity news. And the youngest adults age 18-34 are more likely to follow news about social issues like abortion or race and gay rights than are the oldest payers.
By contrast, subscribers 50 and older are more interested in national politics and government (8 in 10 say it is a news topic they follow closely), local politics and government, and health and medical news.
Age and preferred news platform: Social is inevitable
How does age influence where people get their news? Here there are some predictable but critical differences that publishers must pay close attention to if they want to engage successfully with audiences in the future. Their livelihood, indeed, may depend on it.
To begin with, social platforms are simply inevitable now as a strategy for the future—and those social platforms may be different in a few years. The largest, such as Facebook, are constantly evolving. Others, such as Reddit or Instagram, may be much bigger for younger audiences than publishers imagine. Instagram is already as or more important than Twitter as a news platform for younger audiences. YouTube is a major player for video—and Facebook is trying to compete more there as well.
Many younger adults—both those who pay for news and those who don’t—get their news from all these social media platforms.
What separates young payers from older payers is the frequency with which they get news from their social platforms.
Two-thirds of payers under 50 say they watch, read, hear, or see news on Facebook at least several times a day—or more. Barely half of all payers 50 and older say they check Facebook that frequently.
While there are not differences related to age when it comes to use of Twitter, Reddit, and Snapchat, 18-34 year-old payers are much more likely than their elders to say they get news on YouTube several times a day or more often. Nearly 4 in 10 of those age 18-34 report such frequent use of YouTube for news compared to 2 in 10 of those age 35-49 and 1 in 10 news payers 50 and over.
Unlike their paying counterparts, nonpayers do not show any variation by age in frequency of getting news from social media when controlling for other demographic factors.
We see similar age divides among payers over the devices they use to get news—with older adults more focused on TV and print publications as sources and younger adults more focused on mobile phones.
Reasons for getting news differ by age, even among payers
Do younger adults who pay for news have different reasons for getting news than older adults? If so, how would that influence the way publishers should cover and present news to those audiences?
Across all age groups, two reasons stand out for why people say they get news in the first place.
First, they feel the news helps them stay informed to be a better citizen.
Second, they get news because a news source is particularly good at covering an issue or topic they care about.
More than half of all paying age cohorts cite these two reasons.
And about 4 in 10 of every age group also say that they use news because it helps them decide where they stand on things and it helps them care for themselves and their families.
For the youngest adults, however, the priorities change a little once you move beyond these top factors for getting news, which again are remaining informed and finding a source that excels at topics they care about. For the youngest adults, the third most important reason for using news is that it helps people talk to friends, family, and colleagues about what is going on in the news. In other words, news as social flow is a more important element for younger adults.
And for younger news consumers who pay for news—everyone under age 50—news that helps them identify things to do and places to go is registers as more important than it does for older consumers. Nonpayers under age 50 are also more likely to say it’s very or extremely important that news helps them find places to go and things to do. But nonpayers do not vary by age in the other reasons they give for following news.
The path to subscription for young payers
The previous section addressed the ways in which payers’ motivations for getting news differ across generations. This section now turns to age differences among payers in the reasons they give for subscribing to a specific source that they pay for. Among news payers, the top three reasons for subscribing to a source are similar across age groups.
Two reasons do show differences by age, however. Younger people age 18-34 (24 percent) and age 35-49 (17 percent) are more likely than older folks age 50-64 (7 percent) and age 65 and older (8 percent) to say they noticed it on social media, suggesting publishers looking to attract young people to pay should target social media.
And, those age 65 and older (33 percent) and those age 18-34 (24 percent) are more likely than those age 50-64 (14 percent) to say their personal situation changed, allowing them more time to use paid content. This suggests life changes very early and very late in adulthood make it more feasible for them to pay for news.
Young payers derive value from supporting journalism
Looking beyond the reasons why people subscribe, what value do they see or appreciate in a publication after they subscribe?
We see few differences here in benefits people say they receive from their paid news sources by age. But, younger people age 18 to 34 (34 percent) and age 35 to 49 (39 percent) are more likely than those age 50 to 64 (24 percent) and age 65 and older (25 percent) to say they feel good about contributing to a news organization. On the other hand, those age 50 to 64 (20 percent) and those age 65 and older (22 percent) are more likely to say they benefit from getting access to events sponsored by the organization than those age 35 to 49 (9 percent), with those age 18-34 in the middle (16 percent).
Differences by age emerge in who doesn’t pay for news
Finally, what difference does age make among those who don’t pay for news?
For many years publishers—and particularly newspaper publishers—operated on the assumption borne out over time in the pre-digital age that people would age into becoming subscribers. As they bought houses, had children, and entered the school system and other aspects of civic life, they would naturally become more engaged with the community and turn to civic news.
Is that still true?
The survey finds that there are some differences between younger and older news consumers who do not pay. As noted elsewhere, there are in many ways two types of nonpayers (active and passive news seekers), but there are also signals here that some younger nonpayers may be difficult to convert as long as so much online information is freely available.
Younger nonpayers consume less news, put less importance on keeping up with it, and are less likely to actively seek it out, instead saying they bump into it a high rate. And, as stated previously in this report, while they cite similar top reasons for not paying for news as do older nonpayers, they are more likely to lack enough interest to pay for news and to say they are too busy to use it. They are also more likely to use news to find things to do and places to go.
Younger nonpayers value news less and get less out of it
In aggregate, younger nonpayers don’t consume as much news and do not think that keeping up with news is as important as do their older counterparts. Younger nonpayers consume news less often than older nonpayers. Among nonpayers, the youngest group age 18-34 are also more than twice as likely as all older nonpayers to simply not consume news very often. Indeed, 20 percent of younger nonpayers say they consume news once a week or less often, that is, twice as many as nonpayers who are age 35 to 64 and four times as many as nonpayers 65 and older. The youngest nonpayers age 18 to 34 are also the least likely to believe that keeping up with the news is important. Just a quarter (26 percent) of the youngest group of nonpayers believe that keeping up with the news is very important while more than 4 in 10 of the older nonpayers say the same.
All of this suggests that some of these younger nonpayers may become payers as they age and some will not, just as was true of consumers in the pre-digital age.
One other piece of evidence here is our breakdown of those who actively seek out news versus those who bump into it. Seekers in general look and behave a lot like news subscribers—whether they have begun paying for news or not. But, younger Americans age 18-34 are more likely than any older age groups to say they only bump into news rather than seek it out (6 in 10 vs. about 4 in 10). But the differences between young payers and nonpayers is in degree—even more young adult nonpayers (62 percent) say they bump into news compared with 42 percent of young payers.
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