ANALYSIS | Covid-19 has shown that readers are (again) willing to pay for quality journalism

Research shows consumers are more and more likely to pay for news they consume online. This trend has been boosted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Research shows consumers are more and more likely to pay for news they consume online. This trend has been boosted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
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  • Research shows consumers are more inclined to pay for news online.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has further boosted this trend as audience searched for credible sources of information about the virus.
  • The New York Times gained 587 000 new digital subscriptions during the first quarter of the year to the end of March alone.

Earlier this year, on 20 January, a post on a French conspiracy website called Les moutons enragés (which loosely translated means 'the rabid sheep'), claimed that Covid-19 was caused by 5G technology. The post pointed to reports that Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus broke out, was installing 5G towers right before the outbreak.

The post was picked up by more conspiracy sites and gained momentum when it hit social media. Facebook groups popped up supporting the theory and other conspiracies evolved around it. Some claimed that the coronavirus crisis was deliberately created in order to keep people at home while 5G engineers install the technology everywhere. Others insisted that 5G radiation weakens people's immune systems, making them more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Three months later, people were setting cellphone towers on fire in Europe in opposition to 5G. In the UK, 40 phone masts were vandalised and the BBC's Newsbeat reported that telecoms engineers received death threats.

Fake news is nothing new. The spread of unsubstantiated rumours for political gain, out of spite, or simply for entertainment, has been around for ages. But in an era of social news and an overwhelming access to information, the digital ecosystem has grown into a perfect breeding ground for distorted and fake news, like the 5G conspiracy, to thrive.

Truthful, credible information has become a precious commodity. As New York Times CEO Mark Thompson put it a few years ago: "We find ourselves in a battle, not between left and right, nor elites and 'ordinary' people, nor between traditional and digital media, but between facts and lies."

It is therefore no coincidence that over the past three months since the coronavirus pandemic started, confined to their homes, audiences have been flocking to credible sources of online news.

Tragically, regardless of the massive audiences, advertisers have withdrawn due to economic circumstances, leaving many publishers in a financial crisis. With live events - another important revenue stream - also cancelled, some had to make the devastating decision to close down.

For those managing to survive, there has been a silver lining during the crisis - readers, also in South Africa, have increasingly been willing to pay for information they can trust.

By the end of April, news publishers across Europe and the US gained, on average, 13.6% subscribers for every one they gained in February 2020, according to a report by the International News Media Association (INMA).

The New York Times, the world's biggest online news subscription service, gained 587 000 new digital subscriptions during the first quarter of the year to the end of March alone. It now has over six million subscribers, well on its way to its target of 10 million by 2025.

Online publishers have been building their subscriber audiences for years, but it's been an uphill battle. When the Wall Street Journal decided to charge money for their online content in 1997, their success became an anomaly as others struggled to do the same.

For the next two decades, most publishers rather adopted a logic of giving news away for free online, leaning heavily on advertising income supported by reader revenue from their print editions. The general consensus was that free online news content would attract massive readerships, whose accumulated attention could be sold efficiently to advertisers.

But no one could anticipate that Google and Facebook would step in to claim a majority of the digital ad spend over the next 10 years. When the 2008 financial crisis came along, many advertisers also withdrew from print editions and many publications were forced to close. The goose that lay the golden eggs was dead.

Today, the media landscape looks vastly different. When it comes to content such as music, games and films, consumers seem reasonably willing to pay a monthly subscription or download fee: as is evident from the success of platforms such as Netflix and Spotify. 

Encouraged by this trend, news subscriptions have become a viable source of income for publishers, who have been slowly building this part of their businesses.

The latest digital news report by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, shows that there has been a significant increase in payment for online news in a number of countries, with those who subscribe saying they pay for the distinctiveness and quality of the content.

In March this year, the Wall Street Journal had over 1.8 million subscribers and the Washington Post 1.5 million. The Guardian in England, which employs a strategy of asking readers for donations, had close to 700 000 members.

On home soil, South Africa's largest subscription news service, Netwerk24 has over 53 000 subscribers.

Editor-in-chief Henriëtte Loubser said apart from publishers realising the necessity of subscription models to help fund quality journalism, readers are also becoming more willing to support journalism that helps them make sense of the plethora of information available. They rely on trusted brands to give them facts and context.

Loubser said:

Just as readers have been willing to pay for original, 'on the ground' reporting in print for decades, they are now willing to pay for it in digital format.

"This kind of first-hand, quality journalism has always been expensive and more and more publishers worldwide realise that it cannot be funded by advertising alone - even more so in the digital age where publications compete for advertising income against global giants such as Facebook and Google. This is why print newspapers have always had cover prices, and why it is still needed for digital platforms," Loubser added.

Over the past three months, as the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on a world that struggled to make sense of the enormity of the situation, record levels of new visitors to news websites have been accompanied by record levels of new subscriptions.

Academic researcher and digital transformation consultant Grzegorz Piechota says audiences are seeing an increased appreciation for the value of journalism in a time of uncertainty - and are proving willing to pay for it.

In the UK, the Sunday Times asked readers to subscribe to be able to read an important investigative report into the role of the prime minister in early pandemic planning, according to INMA's report. 1 400 people subscribed by clicking a link directly on that article, paying £26 a month.

"Just as lockdown and social distancing have encouraged people to discover the time benefits of shopping online, people are in the process of discovering the value of digital news over print news. It is clear people need news more than ever, just as the business model that has underpinned it is collapsing," Piechota says.

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