Canadians Won’t Pay for News Online: Study

April 21, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

When the New York Times started to charge for online news content, overall website visits decreased by up to 15 percent. A new study says 81 percent of Canadians would not pay to read news online. (Karen Bleier/Getty images)
When the New York Times started to charge for online news content, overall website visits decreased by up to 15 percent. A new study says 81 percent of Canadians would not pay to read news online. (Karen Bleier/Getty images)
Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? That’s a sentiment shared by the majority of Canadians who say they would not pay to read news online, a recent study found.

The study, conducted by the University of British Columbia, reports that 81 percent of 1,682 Canadians surveyed would not pay to read news online. Ninety two percent actually said they would stop reading their favourite online news source if it introduced a paid model.
Surprisingly, there was little difference of opinion between age groups and education levels or between rural and urban populations.

“These results should give pause to any news corporations in Canada or abroad that are considering erecting paywalls around their content,” says Donna Logan, a professor emerita of UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Logan is lead author of Canadian Consumers Unwilling to Pay for News Online, the first study in a research series for the Canadian Media Research Consortium (CMRC).

“Online news consumers, long used to getting their news free when production costs were mostly subsidized by print and broadcast advertising, are balking at the idea of having to pay for content now that revenues are falling below the level needed to sustain media operations across various platforms,” says Logan.

This may be troubling news for The New York Times, which launched an experimental online “paywall” in Canada in late March. In this model, readers can access a maximum of 20 articles a month before being asked to pay for a subscription, about $15 per month.

When The New York Times introduced the paywall system on March 28, total page views on their website declined by 11-30 percent and overall visits decreased by up to 15 percent in the first 12 days, reported Experian Hitwise, an online research firm.

Compared to recent international studies, the findings suggest Canadians have a slightly greater opposition to paywalls than people in the U.S. and U.K. But about 30 percent begrudgingly said they would be willing to pay for news if they “had to.” Canadians surveyed also said that charges would be most acceptable for breaking news (28 percent) or hard news (22 percent).

In a second report, CMRC finds that Canadians value their home internet connection “more than any other medium.” Forty two percent say their home Internet connection would be the “last media device they would be willing to give up,” while 30 percent say the computer is their medium of choice for consuming news.

But the study notes that Canadians are doing a lot more than reading news online—they are also checking e-mail, home banking, gaming, and downloading TV shows and movies.

Young people have a significant online bias, the study finds. Fifty-three percent of respondents aged 18 to 34 list home Internet as their first choice compared to 43 percent aged 35 to 54 and 32 percent aged 55 and older.

For newspapers however, the relationship is inverse: 15 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds, 22 percent of 35- to-54-year-olds, and 33 percent over 55 prefer accessing news and information through a printed newspaper. Preference for television was also shown to increase with age, and overall 38 percent say they still prefer watching news on TV.

Ultimately, the study concludes, “a preference for online media is clearly developing among Canadians.”

But as media moguls scramble to find sustainable models for a future in the industry, they are also increasingly looking for advertisers to fill revenue gaps. This dependency creates a delicate balance between advertiser interest and public interest.

As Logan points out, before being too quick to refuse to pay for quality content, it is important to consider the consequences of heavily advertising-driven content. As more advertisers look to market on the web, the more they become interested in consumer spending habits.

“Many members of the public are only beginning to become aware that when they search, buy or surf online, they are leaving a trail that provides useful information which can be aggregated, sold, and used by merchants as a means of targeting people,” she warned.

“If and when the public becomes more aware of the issue and decides they really don’t want it to continue, it may be too late. The practice is already widespread so the genie is out of the bottle.”