Paywalls and the greater digital divide: Knight poll asks 'Who should pay for news?'

Online news paywalls are making the problem of the 'digital divide' worse as important content disappears behind costly paid subscriptions.

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The majority of Americans -- a stunning 86% --  see local news as an essential service and that everyone should have access to it, but there is no agreement on how to fund news organizations, according to a recent Gallup-Knight Foundation study. 

A large majority -- 76% of Americans -- say they rely on local and state news organizations to be well informed, and 59%  take "civic pride" in identifying their local newspaper with their city. 

Despite this broad acceptance of the importance of news organizations, the poll found that there was no consensus on financial support to ensure their continued existence. News organizations at all levels local, state, and national are struggling within a declining revenue model, as advertising moves to online platforms. Google and Facebook have nearly a 90% share of all new mobile advertising.

Also: The failure of advertising is creating a greater digital divide

"It's time to ask searching questions of ourselves as a society about how much we value local news, and what we're prepared to do to ensure its future," said Sam Gill, vice president for communities and impact at Knight Foundation.

The study showed that about 33% of Americans subscribe or donate to local news organizations, but 57% said they used to subscribe to local newspapers. This downward trend shows the limits of growing subscription revenues for the news industry. 

While recognizing the importance of news, most Americans are against federal subsidies (66%) or subsidies from local governments (60%). Support was divided predictably between political affiliations with Democrats in favor of federal support (53%) or from local taxes (61%).

When asked what type of content would lead respondents to pay for a subscription, there was no consensus with the largest number -- 31% -- asking for discounts. 

The poll also found that the mistaken belief that many Americans think that local news is profitable and are not aware of the many financial difficulties news organizations face. But once the situation is explained, 54% said they were more likely to subscribe or donate to local news, compared with a control group of 40%. 

The study is called Putting a price tag on local news. It is part of a Knight Foundation and Gallup series researching trust, media, and democracy.