Consumers to Publishers: “Why We Won’t Subscribe”

Cosmin Ene
4 min readJul 17


A new research report from Journalism Studies explains in detail why consumers as a whole — and younger audiences in particular — are so unwilling to pay for news when the only option is to subscribe.

I still struggle with the idea that anyone could be surprised by this. Until this point, it almost feels like no one wanted to ever ask their audience — or do a proper study on this — precisely because they feared this exact result.

Well, the cat’s out of the bag now. Even though this is a small survey that was only carried out in one country — Norway — the conclusions are pretty damning. Let’s take a look, shall we?

#1: Why Subscribe When You Can Read It for Free Somewhere Else?

The report tells us that consumers place a greater priority on reading news stories that are covered widely by the media, considering them to be of greater importance. At the same time, readers are resisting subscriptions because they claim the publications don’t offer enough distinct content. And when there is something distinct, they don’t think it’s sufficiently important because no one else is writing about it.

And it’s worth noting that there was not a noteworthy difference in the quality/content of paywalled content versus what’s available for free. When reading both subscription and free content over the course of the trial, at the end respondents couldn’t immediately distinguish for researchers what they had read that was paid for and what wasn’t.

What this tells me: It’s a perfect Catch 22 situation! Consumers prioritize stories that they see covered everywhere (because that tells them the news is important). But they won’t pay a subscription to read those stories, because the news is being reported everywhere and they can find it for free. At the same time, when they find a story that is not covered everywhere, consumers are less likely to read it because the scarcity of coverage tells them the news is not as important. And why would they pay to read a story that’s not important?

#2: Time Isn’t On My Side

We already know that US consumers only spend an average of 4 minutes a day reading news directly on publishers’ websites? The new research found this actually makes subscriptions less appealing! When respondents were given access to subscription news, they felt compelled to spend more time reading more news — but they didn’t want to. Therefore access to subscribed content wasn’t a perk but a chore!

Consumers have busy, active lives, and reading news is a very small part of how they want to spend their day. It’s no surprise, therefore, that respondents would instead prefer to choose freely from a range of news providers instead of being tied down with a commitment to a specific subscription.

What this tells me: Consumers want and need access to a diverse range of content. And that diverse content, by its very definition, will live on several — or many — different publishers’ sites. Consumers want to choose for themselves what, where and when they want to consume, but subscriptions don’t support that.

#3: Unattractive Payment Models

The research also shows that, as a payment model, subscriptions were incompatible with the news habits of young adults, for a number of reasons:

Is it really surprising, therefore, that those surveyed wanted novel — and more attractive — payment models that were better suited to their media consumption habits? As I’ve said before, subscriptions are all about the publisher. Consumers, on the other hand, just want to enjoy as much content as they can, preferably on their own terms (which for 98% decidedly does NOT include subscribing).

What this tells me: News stories are trending micro pieces of information (“micro-moments”) which trigger the impulse to read … because it feels like everyone else is reading them. But humans only have an attention span of seven seconds in which you can convert them or take some action. Consumers are never going to subscribe in those seven seconds just to read that article.

The news isn’t all bad for publishers, however. The research study also found that, just because they didn’t want to pay for a subscription it didn’t mean that non-subscribers are “avoiding” the news. Although they are put off by paywalls, consumers are still both willing and interested in consuming.

The internet needs a user-centric model that allows users to choose how they will consume content and — equally important — how they will pay for it. Which is, of course, why we created Supertab. Whenever consumers find great content anywhere on the web, with one click they commit to a purchase and put it on their Tab. And while this gives users what they want, it is also additive to existing Ads and Subscription models.

We’re putting the power back into consumers’ hands — the Journalism Studies report clearly shows they want it.



Cosmin Ene

Founder/CEO Supertab. All about giving users choice and making it easy for them to buy content.