Parsing the Latest Online-Charging Poll

There’s yet another poll out there reporting the obvious: Most people say they won’t pay for something they get for free now.

Of course, it’s about newspapers online.

Harris Interactive found that 77 percent of U.S. adults say they won’t pay to read newspapers online. In other words, 23 percent say they would pay. Hey, we’ve got to find silver linings somewhere these days.

Twenty-three percent seems small until you put the number in context. Revisit the days when newspapers still churned out fat profits—before their circulations went into free-fall.

In 2000, newspapers had circulation of about 59 million, according to the Newspaper Association of America. The adult population of the U.S. was about 209 million. That means about 28 percent of Americans bought a paper on a given day and, collectively, they paid an inflation-adjusted $13.2 billion for them that year.

I don’t see 2009 numbers from NAA yet, but if you take 10 percent off 2008’s circulation number, you get about 44 million out of a population of 232 million. That’s 19 percent.

So more people say they will buy newspapers online than actually buy papers in print now. That’s a bit apples to oranges: The Harris poll didn’t say the 23 percent would pay every day, and more than 19 percent of adults buy print newspapers. That’s primarily because of newsstand sales where the ratio of buyers to papers sold is much higher than one-to-one since few people buy at the newsstand every day. And let’s remember that this is a poll, and others have gotten different results

But taken at face value (which critics of charging online will certainly do with that 77 percent number), if more than fifty million people say they’re willing to pay you something for your product, even if most say just between $1 and $10 a month, that’s not nothing.

Circulation revenue isn’t going to be enough to fund news organizations by itself, but it could be an important revenue stream if the industry gets its act together.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.