Analysis: Pew study shows paywall lessons apply to digital dollars for tablet users

News publishers have a slightly better chance of getting people to pay for news on tablets than on the desktop Web, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center, but still find a majority unwilling to pay.

While 77 percent of tablet owners read news on their devices at least once a week, only 14 percent of them have paid directly for news content. That gap is one of many useful datapoints in new research by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and The Economist Group. The study surveyed more than 1,000 tablet owners to get specific insight on how iPads and similar devices will shape the future of news.

The paid-content outlook gets slightly better if you consider that 23 percent of tablet news readers pay for a print newspaper or magazine subscription that includes tablet access.

Even early adopters who consume much news on a tablet are largely unwilling to pay for it.

But among the 85 percent of tablet news readers who have not yet paid directly for content, there is little appetite to convert. Only 21 percent said they would be willing to pay $5 a month if their favorite tablet news source required it. Only 10 percent would pay $10 a month.

Tablet users are slightly more willing than general Internet users to pay for content. Earlier PEJ studies found only 5 percent of online news consumers had paid for local news, and just 7 percent would be willing to pay for online news of any kind.

Although the tablet pay gap is smaller than the pay gulf for desktop Web users, it remains a large gap unlikely to close anytime soon. So, what is a publisher to do?

The bottom line: Dual approach needed

The lesson for publishers should be this: There is no business model for digital content, but there are business models.

The study finds there is a large audience of casual users who prefer to use a mobile Web browser and not to pay. Tablet owners as a whole are twice as likely (40 percent) to rely mostly on their browser for news reading, as opposed to apps (20 percent).

Tablet app users are more likely to read magazines, get news daily, and get news from new sources. They’re also more likely to pay for news.

But, the small audience who prefer apps are “power users” more willing to pay for them. People who mainly use apps for news are more likely to get news daily, to spend more time with news, and to consume more sources, “even to the point of saying the content they get here is worth more than content on other platforms,” the study says.

And here’s the bottom line: “That satisfaction associated with using apps is also tied to more willingness to pay. More than a quarter, 27%, of mainly app users have paid for news on their tablet, compared with just 5% of primarily browser users and 20% of those who use both.”

Rather than bemoan the small number of people who will pay, or freeze out the large number who won’t, the smart publisher will find ways to capture both audiences.

News publishers have found some success online with metered or “leaky” paywalls, which let many readers in for free (preserving traffic and ad revenue), while encouraging their most loyal readers to pay for additional value or convenience. It seems a similar split model may work on tablets, with a free, ad-supported website for all and an enhanced, paid app for power users.

A few other notable points:

  • Penetration. 11 percent of U.S. adults own a tablet.
  • Substitution. People who read news at least weekly on their tablets say they are getting news they used to get from computers (79 percent), print newspapers or magazines (59 percent), and television news (57 percent).
  • Favorite sources. The majority of frequent tablet news users, 65 percent, mostly rely on only one to three sources or apps. The most popular (in order) are CNN, The New York Times and Fox News.

Related: Other recent research has shown that tablet owners read more news than they did before | iPad users spend most time with news apps | Night owls read news on tablets

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  • Anonymous

    I agree it might be unreasonable to think readers would pay the entire cost Gina. But I think many publishers have hoped that a majority of tablet readers would pay something toward covering their costs. 

  • Gina Spadafori

    Isn’t expecting tablet readers to pay for the entire cost about the same as expecting print readers to pay for the entire cost?  The price of a subscription or a paying at the newstand doesn’t remotely cover costs for a print publication. The cover price is set at that sweet spot where publishers can get some money without turning away the readers needed to attract advertisers. Why would digital delivery be any different?

    “Only” 14 percent pay. Interesting headline. I would have guessed a good 10 percent less than that, and would suggest 14 percent is actually not a bad number, considering. (BTW: I guess I am a power user, since I DO pay for digital-only content of no fewer than a half-dozen “publications.”)