Should Digital News Be Free?

The rise in social media during the past five years has equated to 2.3 billion active users. Due to this escalation the way we view our news and digital content has shifted, this is because people are now able to view the news for free. The expectations for free news has resulted in the decline in print readership and print newspapers. As a result, many newspapers have been forced to think about a full conversion into the digital world, and with some newspapers already taking the step.

A study conducted by Srivastava has stated the different ‘availability on multi-mediums had more people to reading newspapers than ever before.’ However, the pressing question is: how much are consumers willing to pay for accessible content online?

Newspapers Conversion to Digital

According to Tess Saperstein of Harvard Politics ‘Print readership is steadily declining, newspapers are closing, and journalists with decades of experience are being laid off.’ Suggesting print readership has steadily started to decline and instead the digital news platforms are becoming much more popular. One newspaper that has converted to digital is The Independent. Evgeny Lebedev of The Independent stated:

‘The newspaper industry is changing, and that change is being driven by readers. They’re showing us that the future is digital’.

© Shannon Barrett, 2016
© Shannon Barrett, 2016

Like The Independent, newspapers should look to their current readership to determine the future of their businesses. From The Independent’s conversion to digital, their readers were given a wider range of free news to choose from. In the last 12 months ‘it’s monthly audience has grown 33.3%, to nearly 70 million global unique users,’ highlighting the conversion has been worthwhile, it’s given users different platforms in which to view the news including video, typed text and a monthly app subscription.

Are Monthly Subscription Apps Worthwhile?

Rupert Murdock’s paywall was introduced to prevent companies such as google and Microsoft stealing hard-earned journalism, reproducing articles and then claiming them as their own. In 2009 Murdock stated ‘We intend to charge for all our news websites. I believe that if we are successful, we will be followed by other media.’ The paid subscription limited the content viewers could see, however, moving on 7 years we have seen a dramatic rise in internet users and as a result the amount of ‘free news’ has risen.

It is increasingly hard to measure what content viewers would be willing to pay for. Most newspapers allow customers to see certain news articles online for free. However, the added benefit of the subscription introduces new custom content which can only be viewed when paying the monthly fee. These subscriptions now come in app form, which can be downloaded straight to your mobile phone or tablet.

The Independent is an example of a monthly paid app where the buyer’s given two choices: the first being £2.99 a week or alternatively a fee of £12.99 a month. It’s aimed at those who prefer ‘a well-curated and paced news experience,’ and consists of content from their weekend supplements as well as articles unavailable to users of their website. Much like The Independent, The Telegraph’s app starts with a free subscription service, this then changes to £2.00 a week or £6.00 a week, depending on the type of content the reader would like. These subscriptions are tailor-made, with limited options in the free service and noticeable content for those who are paying for it.

© The Guardian on Twitter
© The Guardian on Twitter

The paywall, however, seems slightly lost when looking at online news websites. A number of these sites have news readily available for consumers to view in their own time, without the added downfall of a subscription plan. The Guardian is a newspaper with a highly-established online platform, and recognisable social media accounts that are constantly active. Whilst The Guardian has a monthly paid for app, their online free content trumps a lot of the paid for sites. Standing at 38 million users around the world, The Guardian reaches a large audience with its content. Their 5.9 million Twitter followers are treated to daily tweets, guiding them to The Guardian’s website.

© The Guardian on Pinterest
© The Guardian on Pinterest

Their alternative social media accounts, Pinterest, has over 600 thousand followers. The Guardian stated they ‘are always keen to trial new things, especially if they allow new users to discover The Guardian’s great journalism and online content.’ This free content stretches to boards including ‘Feasting,’ ‘Wines of the Week’ and also coverage on different news genres, such as ‘From the Olympics.’ Their content goes above and beyond just the news, proving not all digital content must be paid for. Pinterest links back to it’s original source suggesting this form of free content can be worthwhile for both publisher and user.

The BBC Licence Payer’s ‘Free’ News

A different argument for free news comes with the BBC and its content. Both the news online and, via mobile, are free for the public to view and do not require a monthly, or weekly, subscription fee to use them. However, the argument for ‘free news’ is already controversial as it is the BBC Licence payers who pay for the news uploaded each day. This £145.60 each year is a small cost to pay for all the BBC’s channels, radio stations, iPlayer and, of course, their online website and app. Therefore, the BBC’s licence ensures there are no hidden costs the public must pay to obtain their news.

But is the yearly fee worth it?

The Guardian have researched life without the BBC and found those who were reluctant to pay the cost, missed the BBC after agreeing to block it. One user also stated ‘being without the BBC was absolutely dreadful, just awful. I didn’t realise how much we watched it.’ With another user stating ‘The advertisement [on other channels] drove me nuts.’ But with the rise in social media and the way we collect the news, it poses the argument for both the paywall and the BBC licence, questioning if, perhaps, their fees are too high when people can access free news elsewhere. In contrast, the fee for other elements of the BBC platforms, such as radio & TV, are well worth this payment.

Is Snapchat Transforming our Free News?

© CNN on Snapchat
© CNN on Snapchat

Technology over the years has changed the way we view the news and how the news is reported. The controversial apps and paid subscriptions are being challenged by social media and its development. Snapchat in particular is challenging the traditional news and in 2015 launched its new Discover platform, allowing publishers to use Snapchat to generate short snippets of the news. The CNN commented that Snapchat has ‘a massive audience that’s passionate and engaged, but it’s not one that CNN is reaching on a day-to-day basis,’ proving the social media app accesses audiences that would not necessary approach news on a regular basis. Through Snapchat publishers are able to reach a younger audience, one that is dramatically changing the face of digital content. Therefore, it would benefit from other news reporters using the service.


The New York Times has a very large following and recently used Snapchat as a way to get original content to their users. They used several reporters to ‘narrate key moments and unusual aspects of the Democratic National Convention via Snapchat. Through a mix of video, photos and text overlays, reporters quizzed passers-by on their political preferences.’ This allowed The New York Times to reach the ‘150 million daily active users’ that Snapchat have. This type of news is free for consumers to access and thus people are much more likely to continue to welcome and support this type of platform.

Discover Channel © Shannon Barrett, 2016
Discover Channel © Shannon Barrett, 2016

Speaking for The New York Times Cynthia Collins said,

‘We’re using [Snapchat] as a means to connect with new audiences, a younger audience.’

Snapchat is a social media platform that can then relate to those who may not willingly search for the news themselves. It allows publishers to update their account regularly encouraging behind the scenes content from interviews, videos, to so much more and any audience is pleased to believe they are getting exclusive content for free. The Discover centre is especially important and Snapchat have stated, ‘You’ll see a more filtered selection of content for our Discover page, limited to technology, social media and a few lifestyle stories,’ allowing users to see first-hand the news quickly and effectively.

Snapchat also allows publishers and brands to create their own content on the app through their own free, personal accounts. In 2016 Sloanne stated ‘They use these organic accounts as an extension of their newsrooms or marketing departments,’ these quick snippets can entice and encourage their users to source the content online, acting as the ‘cliff-hanger’ that encourages a younger generation to view their website. The news can be immediate and is an excellent way for publishers to not only promote the news but also their own brand as well.

The Future for Free News

Overall, the news is becoming increasingly difficult to pay for, due to the free content easily accessed online. With the likes of social media, in particular Twitter and Snapchat, the news younger people are accessing does not include a subscription plan or a one-off payment. Whilst these may have adverts, they are generally small and easy to skip – taking away the factor which causes a lot of people to pay for the news. Whilst the BBC is a factor that must be considered due to its yearly fee of £145.60, the fee is something that is understandable due to the extra content such as TV channels, Radio channels and of course their online content. However, when the news is easy to access for free online and through the social media apps the question of ‘Should Digital News be Free,’ can only be answered with yes, it should be.


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