Last Updated on April 21, 2023 by Anna Pacholczyk

A recent study by Marianne Borchgrevink- Brækhus and Hallvard Moe challenges the assumption that non-subscribers are inherently opposed to paying for digital news. The research reveals lack of exclusivity, unattractive payment models, and subscription news as too time-consuming, as the main reasons for young people’s unwillingness to pay for online content, and identifies a strong preference for using multiple news providers among young audiences.


News organizations worldwide are grappling with declining print readership and dwindling advertising revenues, which has led to an increased reliance on reader revenue of some kind, including subscriptions, donations, or memberships. In this context, Norwegian media stands out as a success story, having converted as much as 41% of print readers into paying online customers, according to the 2022 Digital News Report.

Yet, a significant percentage of the population in Norway remains disinclined to pay for digital news, with young people being a particularly challenging audience to convert. Previous research has also shown that young people tend to rely on social media to stumble upon news rather than actively seeking it out. “Such patterns have raised concern not just for the future of quality journalism, but for the lack of learning from news, leading some to fear a less informed citizenry”, explains MediaFutures’s PhD candidate Marianne Borchgrevink-Brækhus.

In a new study, Borchgrevink-Brækhus and Hallvard Moe, professor and the co-leader of the Work Package 1 at the centre, delve into the experiences of young adults who do not pay for news, and identify key dimensions grounding non-payment among this demographic group.

Why young adults do not pay for news  

Despite a growing body of research on the news habits of young people, little attention has been paid to how non-subscribing young news consumers experience subscription-based news content. The latest study by MediaFutures’ researchers addresses the gap.

The PhD candidate elaborates: “Drawing on empirical data from two interview rounds and a subsidised subscription period combined with media diaries, we investigated what young non-subscribers experienced when they got access to paid news content, and how they maneuvered between different forms of paid and free content”.

The researchers identified three key experiences that contribute to young adults’ reluctance to pay for digital content: lack of exclusivity, subscriptions as too time-consuming, and unattractive payments models.

We found that distinctiveness, or lack thereof, was a significant factor in understanding why these young adults withheld from paying for online news. Our informants were less likely to pay for content that they easily could find for free on other platforms”, says Borchgrevink-Brækhus.

To entice paying customers, however, media companies must skillfully navigate the delicate balance of exclusivity to avoid providing too narrow news content. The study found that stories exclusively covered by one news site, typically in a local or regional publication, were perceived by the study’s informants as less significant or even irrelevant.

Furthermore, the traditional subscriptions models used by Norwegian newspapers, which require a minimum monthly commitment, were found to not align with the news consumption habits of younger generations.  “Our informants often expressed interest in only a few articles per site and had a strong preference for what we call “multi-perspectivism” in their news use, which means widespread use of various sources simultaneously. They therefore found it unappealing to commit to only one or two news providers, but at the same time it became too expensive to subscribe to all of them. Additionally, the proceedings of registering, logging in, and creating new passwords for each news provider contributed to subscription fatigue,” explains Borchgrevink-Brækhus.

Instead, the researchers found that many called for a “Spotify-solution” for digital news, where they could access several providers through one joint subscription.

Finally, the research also suggests that subscriptions are perceived as too time-consuming, with users viewing them as an added burden in their already busy lives. The study’s informants implicitly described a «time budget» for news reading, during which they preferred the freedom to choose from multiple news providers rather than feeling tied down to a specific subscription.

Not news avoiders

The study reveals that while informants were not opposed to the idea of paying for news, they held critical views on the legitimacy of charging for certain types of news that are linked to journalistic remit.

Furthermore, the research challenges assumptions about news avoidance among young people who do not pay for news. Borchgrevink-Brækhus and Moe’s research presents evidence to suggest that the absence of payment practices does not necessarily translates into a reduced interest in news, or even lacking access to subscription-based content. In fact, the researchers found that participants who lacked access to paywalled content employed a diverse range of strategies to get information without having to pay.

“Our informants’ complex and sometimes resource-intensive strategies to access subscription- based content illustratedthat far from being news avoiders, they were both willing and interested in orienting themselves towards the public through news, adds Borchgrevink-Brækhus.

The study was published in the Journalism Studies journal and can be accessed here.