Pass the tote bag: Why young readers are now willing to pay for old-guard news

Millennials have been subscribing to online news outlets in numbers three times greater than any other group, a study found. Those interviewed say their decision to pay goes beyond civic philanthropy.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Passengers reading wait for the No. 1 subway train on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York. Millennials now, proportionally, pay more for online news than any other group, according to a new study.

Nearly every day during the routine clatter and bustle of her subway commute earlier this year, Shand Thomas began to notice more of her fellow riders shouldering The New Yorker magazine’s beige and black-emblazoned tote.

Then she began to see people walking around with the literary magazine’s shoulder bag – a promotion offered only to subscribers. And when a number of her friends began to complain that it would take six to eight weeks to get their hands on one of these canvas accessories, she knew it was a thing.

“I thought their frustration at the wait for a free bag was funny,” says Ms. Thomas, a 24-year-old freelance writer and editor in Brooklyn. So she wrote a piece of satire gently poking fun at this unlikely New York fashion trend.

Behind her wit, however, her piece hinted at something more than an ironic canvas cachet. As her 20-something friends were clamoring for what she called “the white whale of beige accessories,” they were also signing up for new subscriptions – which came with “the added bonus of being seemingly philanthropic about print journalism.”

It’s a wry observation, and for many within the cash-strapped Fourth Estate, the fact that people might pay for journalism as a kind of civic charity only underscores the depth of the industry’s financial funk.

This past year, a host of left-leaning Americans have been signing up for new subscriptions to the nation’s beleaguered press, berated almost every week as “fake news” by the United States president. And, indeed, nearly 30 percent of those purchasing online subscriptions say their motive is to help fund or support journalism, according to a recent survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

It’s been called a “Trump bump,” and organizations like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and others have reported dramatic surges in subscriptions. The New Yorker has sent out more than a half million promotional totes, and can barely keep up with demand.  

But many Millennials, a generation that had long viewed journalism as just more fast-and-ready free content on the Internet, say their decision to go old school and actually pay to get the news goes beyond a kind of civic philanthropy.

“President Trump’s attacks on respected news outlets is a small part of wanting to support good journalism,” says Thomas, who admits that she still just reads copies of her roommate’s New Yorker magazines. “But the sheer volume of news and the in-depth coverage these respected outlets provide is probably more of a reason people my age are supporting journalism. Running out of free articles in a month is also very annoying,” she adds.

Who pays most for online news?

Over the past year, the number of Americans who pay for online news subscriptions jumped from 9 percent in 2016 to 16 percent in 2017, according to the Reuters Institute report. And while the study noted that this growth has come from the political left, it also noted that the young were also a major force behind the near doubling of paid subscriptions.

Millennials, in fact, have been subscribing to online news outlets in numbers three times greater than any other group, the study found. The number of young people ages 18 to 24 who paid for subscriptions more than quadrupled, from 4 percent in 2016 to 18 percent in 2017.

Those between 25 to 34, too, jumped from 8 percent to 20 percent, making Millennials the group that, proportionally, now pays the most for news online.

Still, Trump’s attacks have taken a toll: as a Politico/Morning Consult poll last week found, nearly half of US voters believe the mainstream press is not just biased, but actually fabricating stories about President Trump.

While Millennials generally lean left, and next year they are projected to have the most eligible voters of any age group, even some younger conservatives have rediscovered the idea of paying for news.

“The 2016 election showed us that we could no longer rely on free sources of information because of the coordinated campaigns waged not only by political parties but also by foreign actors to sway the population through the propagation of misinformation,” says Steven Cruz, a former spokesman for The Libre Initiative, a conservative Latino organization funded by the Koch brothers.

“Having a president that we can't trust has driven Millennials to rely on reputable news organizations and provided a resurgence for print and investigative journalism,” continues Mr. Cruz, a Millennial who is now the president of Resuelve, a D.C.-based political consulting firm.

Legacy news organizations such as the Times and Washington Post say their highest growth rates are among Millennials, according to Politico. The right-leaning Wall Street Journal has seen the number of its student subscribers double in the last year, and the even the Economist magazine said it was “seeing that the 18-24 and 25-34 age groups have been key drivers of new subscriptions.” The Atlantic magazine and The New Yorker report the same.  

“Just years ago, Millennials were raised on the knee of everything being free,” says Marek Fuchs, executive director of The Journalism and Justice Institute at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. “They saw print journalism not as this kind of civic enterprise, but a place that had crossword puzzles and dopey fashion trend stories.”

'Call to action'

But for the first time ever “in 143 years of teaching,” Mr. Fuchs continues, first year students in his classes this year asked him if he could get the school to get them a class subscription to The New York Times. “And I think this is going both conservative and liberal – that there’s a difference between quality, reputable reporting and somebody riffing online. I think the difference had blurred for a long time.”

“Now they’re clearly seeing that the stakes are higher, and that there is worth to quality reporting and journalism,” he says. “And when there’s a perceived premium worth to journalism, they’re willing to pay.”

Not only have many tired of the cascading click-bait headlines on their social media feeds, many have begun to rediscover the traditional democratic purpose of journalism.

“People usually only consume what their Facebook and Twitter algorithms put in front of them as opposed to seeking trustworthy sources,” says Phoebe Lucas, a senior political science major at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del., expressing concern “especially with what we’ve seen of the Russian-linked ads on Facebook having influence on voters.”

“So I find it irresponsible to place this intense distrust on traditional media, especially when there is actual bogus stuff all over the place,” Ms. Lucas continues. “It’s made me value trustworthy sources even more than before.”

She adds that the need to pursue fact from fiction has become “calls to action for myself and some of my peers. We need good journalism and truth-seekers now more than ever.”

In fact, since the election, Lucas says she’s expanded the sources she regularly reads, purchasing subscriptions to The New Yorker and Time magazine, while she gets The New York Times free as a student. “They exist as a major extra-governmental check on the system, a pillar of democracy, so to me, having our president actively tearing it down is so detrimental,” says Lucas.

The Netflix effect

But scholars note, too, that some of the reasons many Millennials have begun to pay for journalism go beyond just the civic and political.  

“Millennials have started to grow up with subscription services – Netflix, Spotify, or apps that charge a dollar every month – so now, I think, it’s not as strange to them they would do that to get good journalism,” says Lindsay Hoffman, associate director of the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware.

“I did used to make them pay for it, and they kind of resented that,” says Professor Hoffman. “Now, it doesn’t seem that they resent it – they seem to be really hungry for valid, tested information. There may be a sense of urgency, a sense of responsibility, and a renewed sense of efficacy – I think they were blindsided by the election,” she says, adding that many of her students admitted that, like many Millennials, they had not voted.

Cultural currency

For older Millennials, not only has getting news from social media become unreliable, reading high-brow material from publications like The New Yorker has  begun to carry a certain amount of cachet.

“You also have this large group of Millennials who ultimately are going to graduate school, graduating from elite institutions, and are seeing the virtue of paid media, or sort of ‘high journalism,’ ” says Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, professor of public policy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “They’re subscribing not just for the information, but also for the cultural currency it carries.”

Last week, Michael Longinow, professor of media and journalism at Biola University, a conservative Evangelical school in La Mirada, Calif., presented research at the Associated Collegiate Press convention in Dallas, explaining why some Millennials have begun to prefer “slow journalism.” It appeals to them because “that type of journalism helps them understand cross-cultural encounter better than any other kind,” he says.

And he agrees: “There's a segment that like the prestige of being in a ‘club,’ and paying for access means you're in the event, not on the outside looking in,” Professor Longinow says.

Which is part of the reason The New Yorker’s promotional tote became such “a thing” among Millennials in New York, Professor Currid-Halkett says. “In modern capitalist society we find a way to translate our cultural capital into a commodity and into something that is effective at signalling who we are.”

Which is part of the reason Thomas, the young Brooklyn writer, poked a little fun at those clamoring for the promotion. And of course, already many of her friends have moved on, finding the tote has become “a little cliché.”

“But with the crazy news that is coming out every day, I think Millennials want good journalism from respected sources, and they're more willing to pay for access to that news and support foundations doing good work,” she says. “The New Yorker is a reputable magazine and their tote bag has become a sort of stereotypical status symbol for people – it's also not a bad looking tote, with the added bonus of having a bag to haul your lunch in.”

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