By: Jason Schwartz
As President Donald Trump wages daily war against the press, millennials are subscribing to legacy news publications in record numbers—and at a growth rate, data suggests, far outpacing any other age group.
Since November's election, the New Yorker, for instance, has seen its number of new millennial subscribers more than double from over the same period a year earlier. According to the magazine's figures, it has 106 percent more new subscribers in the 18-34 age range and 129 percent more from 25-34.
The Atlantic has a similar story: since the election, its number of new subscribers aged 18-24 jumped 130 percent for print and digital subscriptions combined over the same period a year earlier, while 18-44 went up 70 percent.
Newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times typically do not share specific subscriber data, but according to a Post spokesperson, its subscriber growth rate is highest among millennials. A New York Times representative relayed that the paper was “seeing similar trends” in subscriptions and pointed to public data on digital traffic that showed its online reach among millennials to be up 9 percent from the same period a year ago.
Even The Wall Street Journal—not a paper usually known for being left around dorm rooms—said that it has doubled its student subscribers in the last year. And a spokesperson for the famously staid Economist reported, “We are seeing that the 18-24 and 25-34 age groups have been key drivers of new subscriptions.”
Oft derided as pampered, avocado-toast-eating layabouts, millennials have long been seen as unlikely to pay for news.
“Information wants to be free,” the cliché went, and, not long ago, headlines like, “Why Millennials Still Won't Pay Much For The News” were easy enough to find. But according to Nic Newman, the lead author of the 2017 edition of the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, two major things have changed.
The first is that subscription streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Spotify have conditioned young people to be more willing to pay for quality content.
The second is Trump.
According to the Reuters Institute report, which surveyed more than 70,000 people in 36 countries and was published last summer, the United States was the only country studied that over the last year saw a major increase in the proportion of people who paid for online news, jumping from 9 percent in 2016 to 16 percent in 2017—and millennials were a big part of the reason.
Between 2016 and 2017, the share of Americans aged 18-24 who paid for online news vaulted from 4 percent to 18 percent, the study said; the age group 25-34 rose from 8 percent to 20 percent. Those two age groups, Newman said, collectively represent about 30 percent of the market.
To be sure, the “Trump bump” has existed across all age groups—the New Yorker reports 100 percent year-over-year increases in new subscribers for every demographic—but, in the Reuters Institute study, the millennial age brackets grew at a rate three times greater than any others, and no other age group boasted as high a percentage of people paying for news online.
“The big boost we saw in subscriptions in the U.S.,” Newman said, “is driven by people on the left and younger people are more likely to be on the left. That is really a lot of what’s driving it: young people who don’t like Trump who subscribe to news organizations that they see as being a bulwark against him.”
Newman said that 29 percent of Americans responded to the survey that their reason for paying for news was, “wanting to help support or fund journalism,” which was twice the average for all countries included in the study. Americans on the political left were four times more likely than those on the right to cite supporting journalism as their reason for paying, Newman said.
According to Sam Rosen, the Head of Growth for the Atlantic, the magazine has seen steady growth in millennial engagement over the last four years, but numbers surged after the election. Last July, Rosen ran a survey on the magazine and was struck by the results. “I noticed a really strong engagement in terms of enthusiasm for the brand among the 25-34 year old demo, as well as 18-24. And it was striking to me, because from a print standpoint, typically the Atlantic skews a bit older,” he said.
That brand identification is important, according to Stephanie Edgerly, a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism who has studied how young people engage with news. “This is why the NPR tote bag is a big deal, this is why the New Yorker had a tote bag that was viewed as a hot commodity,” she said. “News is a brand and it stands for certain types of values you want to associate yourself with and that becomes even more important in this political climate.”
“By values I don’t want to just mean liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican,” she continued. “It’s a lot more complex than that. These stand for lifestyle values, this stands for how you see yourself, whether you want to be identified as a socially conscious intellectual who value the arts or a snarky contrarian who knows obscure political arguments.”
Rosen, from the Atlantic, said that, for younger people, he’s seen this type of broadcasting on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter. “We’ve heard from even high schoolers who share Atlantic content on social media that, when they share the Atlantic, they know that they’re signaling that they’re thinking more deeply and critically about the world,” he said.
That signaling can also be a stand against Trump. Dwayne Sheppard, the vice president of consumer marketing at Condé Nast, which owns the New Yorker, said that he’s also observed a sense of brand identification—but said that, for millennials, it extends beyond social media and into the real world. Those subscribing to the New Yorker can choose between a print and digital subscription or a less expensive digital-only option; Millennials, he said, are opting for print at a rate 10 percent higher than older demographics.
“Millennials are choosing print overwhelmingly, or digital and print,” he said. “It’s a physical manifestation of the relationship. You’re on the subway or you’re in the airport and you’re carrying your New Yorker, that’s another signal of what you care about and what you choose to read.”
In the age of Trump, a dog-eared New Yorker or Atlantic may serve as a small token of resistance, but the question remains whether this trend of younger people paying for news is sustainable. Newman, from the Reuters Institute, said that even when the Trump effect wears off, millennials’ embrace of subscription services is a positive sign for the industry.
There was a strong correlation in his study, he said, between people willing to pay for streaming services for music and video and those willing to pay for news. “Other online services have basically given people the grammar by they can understand what subscription is,” he said, in terms of offering different levels of subscriptions and various types of insider benefits. (Newman acknowledged, though, that part of the connection was simply having disposable income).
Both Rosen and Sheppard are bullish that the trend will continue. Shortly after the election and around Trump’s inauguration represented the biggest surge, but “We’re not seeing a downshift or a quieting of interest in subscriptions,” Rosen said.
For all the good news, the truth remains that those willing to pay for journalism still represent a relatively small group—according to the Reuters Institute study, 84 percent of Americans do not pay for online news. Subscriptions are not cheap, and Newman pointed out that there is danger in quality journalism becoming an increasingly elite product. “The danger is that you get a two-tiered system,” he said.
Still, for an industry that has been pummeled for more than a decade by terrible financial news and, for the last 10 months, by the President of the United States, the growing willingness of millennials to open their wallets is welcome news.
“It’s not going to save journalism,” Newman said of the past year’s millennial surge, “but it’s a hopeful sign that people are prepared to pay for quality.”