The average age of people who pay for digital news subscriptions around the world is 47 and growth for paywalled websites is “levelling off”, according to the latest Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
Some 17% of people in a snapshot of 20 countries paid for online news in the past year – the same proportion as last year. This is up from 12% in 2016 and 15% in 2020.
Paying for online news, as defined in the survey, includes subscriptions, memberships, donations and one-off payments.
The report said: “This year’s data show mixed progress, with significant increases in a small number of wealthier countries, though there are signs elsewhere that growth may be leveling off.”
The UK came bottom of the list in a sample of 20 news markets, with 9% of people paying for online news in the past year, up from 8% the year before. Excluding one-off payments and donations, which are used at The Guardian and some smaller publications, the figure was 7% in the past year.
This compares to the 65% of people who paid for at least one TV streaming service in the UK, 37% who paid for music services like Spotify, and 22% who paid for sports broadcasting.
Top of the news subscribers list was Norway, on 41% (down from 45% in 2021), followed by Sweden on 33% (up from 30%).
Sweden was among only a small number of richer countries where the numbers paying for online news increased between 2021 and 2022 – also including Australia (up from 13% to 18%) and Germany (from 9% to 14%).
The median number of subscriptions was one in each of these 20 countries, except for the US and Australia where the median was two as 56% and 51% respectively paid for two or more titles, often one national and one local.
The report’s summary noted: “Persuading younger people to pay remains a critical issue for industry.”
Just 8% of news subscribers in the UK were aged under 30, compared to 17% in the US.
The report quoted a 27-year-old man from the US, who said: "I don’t like when the New York Times asks me to subscribe to read the news. It’s a scam. News is meant to be free." The report said this "sums up the attitude of many of those who grew up in an era with mostly free online sources".
In the US, where 19% of people paid for news (down from 20% last year), around half of all news subscriptions went to the New York Times (which has around 8.3 million digital subscribers), Washington Post (2.7m), or Wall Street Journal (3m).
In Finland, where 19% people paid for online news, half of those paid for one publication - the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.
The challenge to local news publishers such as Newsquest and National World hoping to pivot further into digital subscriptions in the UK was stark: just 5% of news subscribers in the UK paid for a local title. This was even less in Portugal, where 3% of news supporters subscribed to a local brand.
At the other end of the spectrum, in Norway over half (53%) of news subscribers paid for a local title while in Germany that figure was 35% and in the US it was 27%.
The country with the biggest proportion of news subscribers paying for foreign news was Ireland (48%) followed by Canada (39%). The smallest proportions of foreign subscribers were in Norway and Finland (both 3%).
The report also looked at the scale of news consumers paying for individual journalists' output through platforms such as Substack or Patreon. It said "the number of these individual subscriptions is still relatively modest, certainly when compared with established news brands".
In the US, for example, 7% of news subscribers paid for one or more journalists' emails and 4% paid for a journalists' podcast or Youtube channel. In the UK, 0% paid for emails and 1% for audio or video output. The next highest behind the US was Spain, with 5% of all news subscribers paying for each type of individual journalists' content.
Cost of living crisis
The report raised concerns that the ongoing cost of living crisis, which has hit many countries including the UK, saying it will "clearly be a significant factor for those on lower incomes" in terms of subscription churn.
A 57-year-old woman in the UK told one of the focus groups: "Energy costs, along with petrol and food prices, are all rising. Luxuries will need to be cut to free up more money."
But the report pointed out it was unclear whether subscribers would view news as a luxury that can be cut or an essential. A 33-year-old man in the US said: "I feel that this time is the most important time to know as much news and information about our surroundings as possible."
The report said: "The news demographic tends to be older and richer, perhaps making the group less affected by rising prices.
"On the other hand, the sector is unlikely to be immune from these trends and a number of respondents said they would be cancelling subscriptions to news sites because they were too expensive. Others say they are planning to increase the number of subscriptions this year, with some seeing the current national and international instability as a good reason to invest more in high-quality information."
In the UK, 9% of the total sample of subscribers and non-subscribers said they thought they would have fewer news subscriptions in the next year compared to 10% who thought they would get more and 82% who said it would stay the same. In the US, it was a similar ratio with 14% planning to have fewer, 14% planning to get more, and 72% staying the same.
The country where most people planned to pay for more news subscriptions in the next year was Austria, on 31%. Some 9% planned to reduce their subscriptions.