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  1. Paywalls
June 15, 2023

UK’s paywall problem: Two-thirds say nothing will make them pay for news

Just 9% of people in the UK paid for online news in the past year.

By Charlotte Tobitt

The UK remains far behind many other countries with persuading people to pay for news, even as existing subscribers are dropping their subscriptions while the cost of living crisis bites.

Just 9% of 2,000 people in the UK surveyed for the latest Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism said they had paid for online news in the past year. That proportion has only risen from 7% in 2016.

Meanwhile, 65% said nothing could encourage them to pay – compared to 54% in Germany feeling the same certainty, 49% in the US, and 42% on average across 20 markets where news paywalls are active.

Lead author Nic Newman told a launch event for the report at the Reuters offices in London on Wednesday that this showed that in the UK “free options for many people are still good enough”. The report also noted that in each of the UK, US and Germany a “lack of interest or perceived value” in news remain “fundamental obstacles” for people to pay.

On average across the 20 markets, 32% of non-subscribers said they might be encouraged to pay if the offers were cheaper or more flexible for example by allowing them to access more brands for their price.

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Almost a quarter (22%) said they might pay if there was more valuable content, while 13% would consider paying for a less cluttered, ad-free experience.

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In which countries do more people pay for online news?

Norway came top with 39% of people paying for news, followed by Sweden (33%), Australia (22%), and Finland and the US both on 21%.

Japan came joint bottom on 9% alongside the UK. In the survey, paying for online news could include a digital subscription, combined digital/print subscription, a donation or one-off payment. Across all the countries,

On average, 17% of people paid for online news across all the countries surveyed.

"The countries with the biggest proportion paying for news, with the exception of the United States, tend to be smaller markets with a high concentration of publishers, most of which introduced paywalls around the same time," the report said.

Cost of living crisis impacting news subscriber decisions

This lack of propensity to pay for news fits into a picture where the cost of living crisis and high prices were being cited as reasons for sub cancellations over the past year and many news businesses were citing economic headwinds as they made layoffs and other cutbacks.

The report said: "With household budgets under pressure and a significant part of the public satisfied with the news they can access for free, there are signs that the growth in online news payment may be levelling off."

Newman told the launch event: "It's been a pretty tough year in terms of layoffs and closures across the world. We've heard about Buzzfeed News [closing], Vice filing for bankruptcy.

"Against that background, it's not surprising that we see publishers focusing less on advertising and more on subscription, membership and donations."

But, he continued, there has been "broadly a slowing down of growth".

The report cited cost pressures, with 23% of subscribers on average across the 20 markets having cancelled at least one of their subscriptions in the past year, and a further 23% negotiating a cheaper price.

"At the same time, others have taken up new subscriptions, often using a cheap trial offer," the report said. "Given their relatively small number of respondents these findings are based on, and the very real variation from publisher to publisher and market to market, the results cannot necessarily be generalised, but they clearly show that, while the headline number of subscribers have stayed the same, there is often a considerable amount of churn at a title level."

In a comparison between the UK, US and Germany, subscribers in the UK were least likely to have taken out a new subscription in the past year (10% versus 25% in the US), although they were also least likely to have cancelled (17%) or renegotiated the price (18%).

Written responses to the survey gave the cost of living crisis and high prices as the main reasons for cancellation. A 24-year-old woman in the US said: "I was spending too much on online subscriptions. I wanted to cut some cost; mainly I just couldn't afford it anymore."

And a 33-year-old woman in the UK said: "With the cost of living crises, I cannot afford more than one subscription." The report said: "In the light of the squeeze on household spending, we find that many people have been rethinking how much they can afford to spend on news media."

Other frequent reasons were that people were not using the subscription enough or that they did not make the jump from a free trial to a fully-paid subscription. A 27-year-old man in the US said: "The deal ended, so it became more expensive to me, so I decided to cut the cost. I also wasn't really using it as much since I get so much for free on Twitter."

'Winner takes most' dynamic in subscriptions market

A "winner takes most" dynamic is continuing in many markets, the report said, with a "large proportion" of digital subscriptions going to "just a few upmarket national brands".

However some countries are now seeing the majority of those who pay taking out more than one subscription - possibly down to an increase in discounted offers and all-access bundles, the report suggested.

In the US, 56% pay for two or more subscriptions - most often a national and regional news combination. Australia, Spain, and France are also seeing increasing numbers of second subscriptions.

There has also been an increase in the numbers paying for platform-based news subscription products such as Apple News+, with these now making up 18% of subscribers in the US.

One trend that the report said has stayed largely in the US is willingness to pay for news content from individuals. In the US, 8% of subscribers pay for a newsletter written by an individual journalist or influencer and 5% pay for a podcaster or Youtuber, the survey found.

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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