Current and former newspaper customers cite a variety of reasons for abandoning, continuing or starting paid subscriptions. But for younger readers, the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence was pivotal, and their paying behavior is yet another sign that for Gen Z, digital-first means digital-only.
With my American University colleague Sherri Williams, an expert on race and media, I presented those findings in Paris at the International Communication Association annual meeting in May. Our talk was based on a trove of interviews and documents I’ve been collecting since 2018 for my upcoming book on the influence of private investment funds in the U.S. newspaper market.
Results of this study, which looked only at people ages 18 to 39, offer a new understanding of Millennial and Generation Z news habits. They also indicate that the massive social upheaval wrought by racial justice protests after George Floyd’s May 2020 murder at the hands of police spawned or maintained interest in local newspapers traditionally seen as agents of government accountability.
In the last decade, scholars and the news industry have sought to understand more about what factors influence people to pay for local newspapers as the advertising model crashes. Even before the renewed focus on police accountability and racial justice, researcher Manuel Goyanes asked, “In this economic situation, an important question for the future of news organizations arises: which factors influence the [willingness to pay] for online news?”
Between July 2020 and February 2021, I conducted 85 interviews with current and past newspaper subscribers in 24 states, asking either: Why do you subscribe? or What made you cut your subscription? The interviews, which included other questions on civic engagement, nonprofit news and watchdog reporting, generated 70 hours of material.
Their answers revealed more than half the subjects in the 18-to-39 age group mentioned Black Lives Matter or Floyd’s murder as reasons they sought new subscriptions or felt justified paying for existing digital newspaper access.
Lily Day, a 22-year-old in Washington, D.C., who works for a nonprofit, started digital subscriptions to the Chicago Tribune and the Star Tribune (Minnesota) in 2020, hoping both would keep her informed about local and regional events after Floyd’s death.
“I have been using local news outlets to follow what concrete action is being taken, or not taken, on the part of policymakers and their responses to the protests that I have been following on social media,” Day wrote in a June follow-up email. “On social media, the words of elected officials are often clipped or taken out of context. I found it much easier, and more informative, to follow what was being said and done on the part of local government in local news rather than on social media.”
Day was among the 19 people in our sample who said local newspapers offer both reliability and accuracy, a trusted antidote to misinformation and disinformation they see regularly on social media feeds.
That constant connection means their choice of platform is unsurprising. Among current newspaper subscribers, no one under age 30 paid for print, and the digital payments they do make are small, ranging between 99 cents to $5 per month.
Less research has been devoted to those who stop paying for news. User experience, including too many ads on mobile devices, were factors a few said led them away from local newspapers online.
Studies suggest a range of reasons non-payers may switch to subscriptions, if they do, but none to date have addressed why people pay for news or abandon it. And in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and amid the economic, health and social upheaval that the Covid-19 pandemic laid bare, the question remains important to understanding how people get their information and what sources they trust.
Yet another key question looms about how and if these transformational–and ongoing–events that served as catalysts for young consumers to see news as worthy of payment at a time local newspapers also are in crisis can be sustained. Williams and I are continuing our data analysis for all ages in the sample examining other factors that influence people’s relationship to and with the news.