Digital Publishing: Millennials Will Pay For News If You Give Them Engaging Journalism to Support

Here’s a statement I bet you didn’t predict to read today: Young people are actually paying for the news.

I know, we’ve been told for years that only older people care about the news, and our business is dying off one senior citizen at a time. But according to a huge new study conducted by the Media Insight Project, 37 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 actually pay real money to subscribe to one or more news source.

The project, a collaboration between the American Press Institute and the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, is an attempt to obtain an understanding of who is subscribing to news sources in the digital age and why. After all, with most daily newspapers either using or moving towards a paywall strategy online, what motivated people to subscribe is immensely important data for publishers and editors looking to replace declining advertising revenue in order to sustain their journalism.

Frankly, it’s a perfect time for a deep dive into digital subscription strategy, considering the success newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have had growing their digital subscription base, a trend most commonly attributed to their tough but fair coverage of President Trump’s administration.

What’s noteworthy about their digital subscription growth is that all three have also enticed a swarm of millennials to purchase subscriptions. In fact, according to a recent Pew study, the resources these three organizations devoted to their digital outreach efforts might have attracted enough young readers online to overcome a long-standing age gap for newspapers.

Other newspapers have had success growing their digital subscription numbers. Both the Boston Globe and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune have increased their digital-only subscription numbers to enviable heights over the past few years. Gannett, the largest owner of local newspapers in the country, announced back in April that it now has more than 250,000 digital-only subscribers, a 72 percent increase over last year.

Unfortunately, local newspapers haven’t had nearly the success of their national counterparts in attracting young adults en masse to subscribe to their digital products, and the 2016 election reveals a number of reasons why.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, young adults were twice as likely to get their election news from national newspapers like the Times and the Post as they were local newspapers in their community.

Part of the reason for this is obvious—most local newspapers don’t have a large staff of national reporters (if any at all), and rely mostly on wire content that can be unengaging and less robust than the up-to-the-minute reporting done at national outlets.

That’s far from the only reason. In their “Our Path Forward” memo published back in January, the Times noted their online plan involving focusing on their audience of readers under the age of 35, which they consider the key in helping their news operations stay ahead of the curve online.

“Young readers were the first to shift to mobile and the first to embrace social platforms, and they have become reliable first indicators of major trends that ultimately affect our entire audience,” Times leadership wrote in the memo.

This takes shape in many forms, from producing engaging coverage of topic areas important to younger readers (such as the national election) to focusing on technology that makes it easier and more enjoyable for readers to actually consume content, especially important if you’re asking readers to pay.

“Young people demand good online user experiences,” said Laura Davis, the digital news director at the USC Annenberg Media Center. “Local newspapers don’t have that.”

For starters, local news organizations heavily invested in covering local politics and government need to reinvent their coverage to make it more relevant to millennials, who are often so fixated on national politics they don’t even know who their local representatives are. As a result of how local politics are often covered, it scored poorly among young adults in terms of the coverage areas they say they’re willing to pay for.

The need to make areas such as local politics more engaging is vitally important if your organization wants more millennials to subscribe online. As the study points out, young adults who purchase digital subscriptions derive value from supporting journalism they care about. It’s hard for them to value something they’re unengaged with.

Beyond that, the study pointed out some general topics young adults prefer more than older readers: Crime and public safety, science and technology, schools and education, and hobbies. Though it’s important to do your own market research to see what topic areas resonate among the young adults in your own community.

The good news is there is a lot of room out there to grow digital subscriptions among millennials. It’s exciting that nearly 40 percent of young adults value news to pay for it online, but that also means that a majority of young adults aren’t yet willing to pay to subscribe to a digital news service.

Even more promising is the fact that a majority of millennials are news seekers, meaning they read as much news as subscribers, they just don’t yet pay for it. Of this group, about one in three says they’re likely to pay for a source they now use for free. They’re out there right now in your community—they just need to be identified and given a reason to subscribe to your newspaper.

An important component of that strategy is social media itself. Networks like Instagram and Snapchat may not yield large numbers in terms of web traffic, but they are vital in reaching millennials and introducing them to your journalism.

What works in favor of most newspapers is all people that pay for news, young and old alike, demand quality over cheapness. Worthwhile journalism is in the DNA of newspapers, and attracting digital subscribers requires a reinvestment in engaging content, easy-to-use interfaces and a focus on audience needs.

And writing about President Trump every once and awhile doesn’t hurt, either.

Rob TornoeRob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Reach him at

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One thought on “Digital Publishing: Millennials Will Pay For News If You Give Them Engaging Journalism to Support

  • July 21, 2017 at 3:45 pm

    What’s not highlighted here is that subscriber rates, including dead tree rates, have remained unchanged for years. About a third of ages 18-34 subscribe to some form of news, either special interest magazines or newspapers or, as highlighted in this piece, digital media. That number grows as the demographic ages, to about 50 percent for ages 35-50 and two thirds for ages 50 and up. The curse of newspapers subscriptions has not been the free Internet but escalating rates and diminishing content.


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