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The news media balancing act: business vs. public service

November 1, 2022 | By Rande Price, Research VP – DCN

The news media plays a crucial role in supporting a healthy democracy. Newsrooms are to provide accurate information and holding powerful interests accountable for their action. However, new research shows that most Americans now think news organizations prioritize their business needs over public service. The research highlights a central contradiction of the U.S. news media: It is an institution with critical public duties within a system of little public funding.

The Gallup/Knight Foundation report shows that approximately 76% of U.S. consumers strongly or somewhat agree that most news organizations are “first and foremost businesses, motivated by financial interests.” Only 12% of consumers strongly or somewhat agree that most news organizations are “first and foremost civic institutions, motivated by the public interest.”

This report is Part 1 of a two-part study, American Views 2022. The first part focuses on consumer attitudes and behaviors, and the second will delve into what drives Americans’ trust in news. The analysis includes survey results from over 5,500 U.S adults aged 18 and older.

Nearly two-thirds (62%) of U.S. adults report that news companies lean more toward staying in business than serving consumers. Younger Americans, 67% of Gen Z and 70% of Millennials, are most likely to believe news organizations prioritize their business needs. Only a small percentage (6%) of consumers think news organizations lean toward providing a public service. Importantly, 30% of those surveyed think news organizations balance business needs and public service well.

Further, more republicans (81%) and Independents (82%) than Democrats (69%) strongly or somewhat agree that news organizations are motivated by financial interests than serving the public interest.

The Gallup/Knight analysis shows that the 29% of consumers “very favorable” toward the news media also say news organizations are first and foremost civic institutions. More than double the amount compared to the total consumers at 12%.

According to the Gallop/Knight analysis, almost three-quarters (72%) of Americans report never paying a news organization directly for their content. Among the 26% paying for news content, the majority did so via subscriptions (86%), donations (39%), membership (36%), micropayment (10%), and day pass (5%).

Those more likely to pay for news include:

  • Younger Americans (Gen Z and Gen X)
  • Democrats are more likely than republicans and independents
  • White Americans
  • College educated (four years)
  • High income, more than $150,000

Predictably, those with more favorable attitudes toward news media are willing to pay to access news in the future. One-third of consumers (33%) with favorable attitudes about the news media report having paid for news in some form. Further, 25% of consumers with favorable attitudes about the news media would pay to access news in the future.

Seventy-six percent report their decisions to pay for news depend on the content, and 62% say that the deciding factor is the cost. Gen Z and Millennials are considerably more likely to report that content is an essential decision factor, 82% each.

As new organizations look at new revenue streams, they should carefully target Gen Z and Millennials. We know Gen Z and Millennials index higher on willingness to pay for content. However, they also show a stronger inclination towards paying for events and exclusive content.

Striking a balance between servicing the public and managing a news organization’s financial interests is tied to consumers’ willingness to pay for news content. Ensuring this balance can help drive consumer favorability and grow their willingness to pay for content. Further, younger adults appear more open to diversified revenue streams, such as news organizations charging for events, newsletters, and exclusive content. As younger generations continue to gain buying power, these attitudes could translate into real financial growth opportunities for news outlets.

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