Pew Internet study shows people will pay for content, sometimes

Over the holidays, the prolific Pew Internet & American Life project released another in a series of surveys, this one offering some modest encouragement for paid content experiments in the offing for 2011.

The survey found that 65 percent of Internet users said they had paid for some form of online content – music, games, news, porn.

Of those surveyed, 18 percent said they had paid to download “a newspaper, magazine, journal article or special report.” More good news: that percentage was higher for college graduates (25 percent) and those with $75,000+ annual household income (28 percent).

But the findings come with a host of qualifiers. The question asked if users had “ever” paid.  So buying a reprint from The New York Times back mid-decade when those cost a couple of dollars would qualify as a yes. So would buying a single edition of anything on a Kindle or other e-reader.

Also, those answering yes likely include business people whose companies readily spring for paid online professional information and academics who download scholarly articles.

In addition, the 65 percent was of a group identifying themselves as regular Internet users. A quarter of those surveyed were not, a cohort that doubtless includes older print-only readers.

I suggested in an e-mail to project director Lee Rainie that the very broad survey design made it impossible to extrapolate to the burning question of whether some number of newspaper site readers are ready to start paying for access.

He agreed. “There isn’t necessarily a huge encouraging sign about the upcoming experiments with pay models,” he wrote.

However, Rainie added that the Internet project might address the issue specifically in one of its future surveys, and “at a minimum, we’ll field the same battery of questions” late in 2011. That will allow a measure of changes from the 2010 baseline findings, both overall and by category.

Even with the qualifiers, I take the Pew survey as evidence that despite the insistence of “information-wants-to-be-free” ideologues, some of the people will pay for some content some of the time.

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