Survey: Half of U.S. Would Pay (a Pittance) for Online News

The New York Times reports on a new survey that says half of Americans would pay for news online if only they were charged. The bad news? They’re only willing to pay an average $3 a month.

That’s largely because there’s more free content here than in other major countries surveyed, all of whom (except Australia) are willing to pay more than Americans are, and all of whom (except the UK) were more likely to say they would pay, the Boston Consulting Group survey found.

Still that’s not nothing. If 92 million people actually did so (the adult Internet population was about 184 million at the end of last year) that would be roughly $3.3 billion in revenue a year, or more than the newspaper industry has ever gotten in online advertising in any one year.

And while that $3 figure seems low, you have to take into account that these are people being asked how much they would pay for stuff that’s currently free to them. I’m assuming the $3 figure is just the average of those who say they would pay, but it’s not totally clear from the story. If the half that won’t pay are included, the average would be $6 for those who say they’d pay.

It’s also unclear if the study is focusing on news industry broadly or newspapers specifically. The story says “online news” up top, but mentions “papers” or “newspapers” twice in the last three paragraphs. The distinction is critical since if all that revenue went to newspaper sites alone it could make them viable, but if it were spread out amongst magazines, blogs, and sites like Talking Points Memo, it would have less impact.

This finding gets to the whole “loyal readers and junk traffic” thing:

Paradoxically, in every country, the people who were willing to pay the most for news online were the people who already pay the most for news: avid newspaper readers.

But 92 million is a huge number people to get to pay money every month, and it’s well more than the 65 million (households) who subscribe to cable TV, though for prices an order of magnitude greater than $3 a month.

Such a tally seems way too high and getting anywhere within laughing distance of it would seemingly only be possible if most of the news sources went behind paywalls en masse and figured out some way to divvy up the revenue according to usage. Talk about herding cats.

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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.