Canadians won’t pay for news online: study

Surprise, surprise: Online pay walls may not be the stuff of publishers’ dreams, after all. At least, not in Canada. According to a recently released study by the Canadian Media Research Consortium, more than 90 per cent of Canadians who get their news online say they wouldn’t pay if their favourite sites started charging for content. They’d just find another — free — site.

This is bad news for the many news organizations scrambling to find much-needed revenue-generating models in order to keep their sites financially afloat. Indeed, of the 1,682 adults that the CMRC (and its partner Vision Critical) surveyed, only 30 per cent said they would pay if there were absolutely no other price tag free choice.

What’s more, “there is little or no difference among age groups, education levels, or urban and rural populations on this question,” reads the CMRC report. “Having gotten used to news online for free, people seem adamant they won’t pay.”

The survey does offer a (very) small glimmer of hope, though. While the evidence is “scant”, reports the CMRC, there is some chance attitudes can change over time.

True, the numbers show where pay walls have been introduced readership has dropped, and in some cases dramatically so. (See the London Times, which regularly attracted six million unique viewers per month pre-pay wall, but only 2.5 million post-pay wall.) However, Canadians also used to be unwilling to pay for music, games and movies online. As the CMRC notes, this is no longer the case.

Unfortunately, it adds, “The problem is that media owners need new revenue streams sooner, rather than later, and they may not survive long enough for attitudes to change.” Doom-and-gloom as that may be, it hasn’t stopped organizations from testing the waters with pay walls — The New York Times started charging Canadians for content March 17.

Plus, there are some types of content readers are more willing to shell out for, such as breaking news(28 per cent) and hard news (22 per cent). Similarly, if they must pay, there are also some types of payment structures that appeal more to readers, such as flat-fee subscriptions (34 per cent) and pay-as-you-go (20 per cent). Least favoured: a per-day charge (6 per cent), a per-article charge (4 per cent), and a purchased phone app (7 per cent).

“If only consumers were as comfortable paying for content as owners would like them to be, the future would be a lot rosier,” concludes the report. “Pay walls might work for selective publications, such as the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London but given current public attitudes, most publishers had better start looking elsewhere for revenue solutions.”

The report is the first of a four-part CMRC series that looks at the news consumption habits of Canadians. The next CMRC report examines how Canadians use media devices to access news.