Tablet Users Unwilling to Pay for News… Will They Change?

A new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and The Economist Group found that consuming news was one of the most popular activities for tablet users. The study also found that out of tablet users who regularly read the news, three out of 10 of them spent more time consuming news than they did before they got a tablet. Four out of 10 regularly read in-depth news and analysis. These are promising figures for the future of digital news and the tablet.

But the figures came with one pitfall: “News is valued but willingness to pay is low.” The majority of tablet owners (85 percent) had never paid for news on their tablet, and 78 percent said that news on the tablet was not worth more than any other medium. Out of those who had not already paid for news, only 21 percent would agree to pay $5 a month for their favorite tablet news source. Most turned down the $5 charge, even if it were the only way to access it.

So who are those lovely people paying for news? They make up only 14 percent of tablet users, but are sure to be appreciated by news organizations. Turns out, 86 percent of them consume news daily, and over two-thirds prefer in-depth individual stories to headlines. These users, compared to the ones who do not pay for news, enjoy and value their news more. They are also highly educated, more likely to be liberal and have higher incomes compared to tablet users in general. How does this bode for the future of digital news?

Rather than interpreting the findings as a harbinger of things to come, they should be seen as a snapshot of how things currently stand. Writers of antiquity wrote for glory, not compensation (alas copyright law was nonexistent back then). People did not pay for the first television broadcasts in the late 40s, but now we fork over our dollars to Time Warner, however grudgingly. Complaining about Time Warner is second only to lamentations about the MTA in New York. What once was free has now become an almost ubiquitous commodity; there are 160 million cable boxes in the U.S.

What do you think? Will people become more willing to pay for news on the tablet? Or has the Web transformed the value of news forever? I would stake my bets with the optimists–those 14 percent who pay for news will only see their numbers rise.