Photograph by Hachephotography/Getty Images/Flickr RF
By Mathew Ingram
May 2, 2017

As the advertising market continues to be disrupted by the rise of the Google-Facebook duopoly, many online news publishers are looking to paywalls and subscriptions for survival. A new study shows there is some reason for optimism, but also plenty of reasons for pessimism.

The research, done by the Media Insight Project, found that a little over half of U.S. adults currently pay for news—either through subscriptions to traditional publications like newspapers or magazines, or to online media outlets, or both.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that there is another large group of news consumers who are described as “news seekers,” users who are interested in the news and devote a certain amount of time to finding it. But more than half of this group do not pay for their news, either in print or online.

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An optimist would see this as an untapped resource for subscriptions, if only a way could be found to charge them for the news they are so interested in. A pessimist, however, would see a group that is successfully getting all the news they need for free, with no intention of paying.

There are some grains of hope for the optimists: Almost 20% of those who don’t currently subscribe to a news source say that they are inclined to do so in the future, if the price was right.

When it comes to those who already subscribe, the reasons for doing so include:

1) The fact that the publication is good at covering a topic the reader is interested in.

2) The fact that friends and family also subscribe.

3) The fact that the outlet provided a discount or (in the case of print newspapers) that it includes coupons that can help a user save money.

Most of the benefit of subscriptions goes to print publications, according to the Media Insight survey. Of those who currently pay for their news, close to 60% describe themselves as primarily print subscribers, compared with less than 30% who are digital.

As for the non-paying crowd, most of the reasons why they don’t pay are fairly obvious. Most of those surveyed said they had no problem finding plenty of free news, while over 40% said they weren’t interested enough in the content to pay. Others said they found subscriptions too expensive, or they were too busy to make use of them.

The Media Insight Project also found that young people—a group that has traditionally been seen as uninterested in paying for content—subscribe to news sources at a higher rate than many people assumed. Almost 40% of adults between the ages of 18 and 34 said that they subscribe to a news outlet, and said they did so because they wanted to support the organization’s mission.

This raises the possibility that news publishers that can successfully connect with younger users may be able to convince a significant number of them to begin paying for their content, provided they see the organization’s overall mission as worthwhile.

As the study put it, “publishers must understand that these relationships begin through friends’ referrals and social media,” and that in order for younger audiences to be willing to pay a subscription for their news, “they must bond with your mission and purpose.”

Interestingly enough, the Media Insight survey says there is some evidence that publishers may be able to get away with charging more than they do now. Only 1% of those who pay say they think their subscription is too expensive for what they get, and 48% of digital subscribers say they feel they are getting a “very good value” for the money.

The Media Insight Project is a joint venture between the American Press Institute and the Associated Press NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The study surveyed more than 2,100 adults in the U.S. who were randomly selected.

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