The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

Who pays whom for news?

One of the news industry’s biggest challenges remains the simple fact that most people simply do not pay for news. Survey data from the Reuters Digital News Report found that an average of just 17% in the 20 markets they researched had paid for digital news in the past year, either as a recurring subscription or a one-off payment for an article.Those numbers are slightly better in the US, at 19%, and much worse in the UK, where it is just 9%. 

But those overall percentages don’t tell us how many actual digital news paying customers there are in various markets, or how digital news providers are doing in terms of selling their subscriptions to those who are willing to pay. 

We can, however, do some very rough calculations to give us some idea both of the numbers paying for news, and how big a share of paying digital customers the different outlets have.

A disclaimer before I dig into the analysis: these figures are approximate calculations based on a range of sources for digital subscriptions at digital news outlets, mostly their own announcements, reported at various stages from late 2021 to early 2023. The population figures are taken from the most recent census data: for the US, that’s 2020 and the UK 2021. To estimate the total number of people paying for digital news, I’ve simply used the survey data from Reuters and applied the percentages to 18+ population figures. That obviously leaves quite a lot of margin of error around the edges, before we even get into the reliability of what people say they do. Nevertheless, it gives us some insight into the state of play in the digital news market and the challenges for the future.


According to the country’s Office for National Statistics, there are some 42m people in the UK aged18+ and, according to Reuters, 9% of them pay for digital news with the median number of subscriptions at just one. That gives a total of roughly 4.2m paying digital news consumers in the UK, most of whom are paying for just one outlet. Further, Reuters’ stats show that just 5% of those are paying for regional titles, and just 6% for foreign publications, so the vast majority of that is for “national” brands. 

If we compare this to the subscriber numbers reported by big national news brands, we can see that roughly half of all UK digital news subscribers are signed up to just five titles, with the top four each holding roughly comparable shares of around 10%. 

The Telegraph reported at the beginning of the year that it had about 590,000 digital subscribers, most of which we can assume are in the UK, given the brand’s focus. That figure includes 76,221 “bonus digital subscriptions” included as part of the digital and print packs, which should be included according to Reuters’ methodology, and 43,218 digital subscriptions on a free trial which probably shouldn’t. That gives a figure of about 550,000 – just out ahead of everyone else – or 13% of all people paying for digital news. 

Both The Guardian and the Financial Times (FT) have large international audiences, but don’t provide a clear breakdown of how many of their digital customers are in the UK or outside it. However, according to various statements it’s possible to estimate that there were approximately 500,000 people in the UK giving The Guardian money for digital news at the end of 2021, a combination of “members” and “recurring digital payments”, just under 12% of those paying for digital news in the UK. For the FT, the clearest statement we can find is that “more than half” of the over 1m paying digital subscribers it had in March 2022 are outside the UK (with more than 20% in the US) giving some 500,000 for the UK, meaning that too is on about 12%. 

LIke The Telegraph, The Times of London provides a more specific number for its digital subscriptions: 438,000 at end-2022. Given it also has a clear UK focus, it may be safe to assume that the vast majority of those readers are UK-based, giving it in the region of 10% of those paying for digital news there. 

The Economist is some way behind the national newspapers in terms of UK digital subscribers, with 158,000 of 1m+ digital subscribers coming from the UK (and Ireland) according to its Audit Bureau of Circulations certificate. That puts it on roughly 3.7% of those in the UK paying for digital news. Many of those are combined print and digital (maybe about 50%) but, given that those are also included in the Reuters numbers, it works for our purposes. 

Adding The Economist’s UK numbers to the shares of the four national news brands brings the share of these five publications to just over 50% of the estimated total paying audience. 

What are the rest of that audience paying for? Well, there are obviously smaller news focused publications, the likes of the i, New Statesman and Spectator – all coming in at less than 1% of the total. What are classed as individual payments for digital news (maybe single purchases of a digital edition etc) will also not show up in the subscription figures. 

But while it’s difficult to say what the rest of those UK digital news customers are paying for, we can be certain that – when it comes to charging for digital news in the UK – there are four big national news brands, all with similar shares, that have captured close to 50% of ‘news buyers’.


The picture in the US is quite different, and not just in terms of the proportion of people who pay for news, which is way above the UK at 19%. Not only are Americans more than twice as likely to pay for news, but they also have a median number of news subscriptions of two. They are also much more likely to pay for regional news at 27%, and slightly more likely to pay for overseas outlets (7%). 

Those numbers make calculating the comparative picture in the US slightly less simple. But some, not entirely surprising, numbers can still be extracted. 

First off, one in five in the US say they pay for online news. That means a pretty big total market of almost 50m paying digital news consumers, more than 13m of whom pay for regional digital news. 

It will surprise no one that the New York Times has a dominant share. It has a total of 9.7m subscriptions, of which some 700,000 are print. It is difficult to work out exactly how many of those are US only. But the company said in late 2021 that it had passed 1m non-US digital subs on the way towards a target of 2m by 2025. Assuming that remains on track, it seems reasonable to deduct 1.5m from the total in early 2023 to get a US-only figure of 7.5m subscribers. This means that something like 15% of all US paying digital news consumers are subscribed to the NYT, no mean feat. Perhaps that’s what it takes to be the leading light for English language, digital news subscriptions globally. 

Everyone else lags way behind, even if we assume the bulk of their paying digital customers are in the US. The Wall Street Journal, with 3.2m digital subscribers, is pulling in just over 6%, while the Washington Post, on 2.5m, is just over 5%. Gannett, the US’s biggest regional publisher (that also operates national title USA Today) has around 2m subscriptions, giving it just over 4% of those in the US who pay for digital news. 

After that, in terms of newspapers the LA TImes, has 500k subscribers (about 1% of those paying for digital news) while the digital subs numbers for magazines such as The Atlantic (349,000), New Yorker and Time (240,000) all put them well below 1%, and the real share is likely to be smaller given that quite significant chunks of their online subs are likely to be outside the US. 

It’s also worth noting that 7% of US respondents who said they pay for digital news did so for individual journalists via newsletters or a website, while a further 4% pay for them via podcasts or YouTube. Given they are a subset of the total numbers paying, they don’t have a huge impact on the overall numbers, but it does put the total individual journalist audience for just newsletters and websites well ahead of some of the country’s biggest news brands with over 3m paying customers. For podcasts and YouTube, the number is comparable to, for instance, Gannett at just under 2m.

The overall picture in the US looks both more diverse than the UK and more dominated by one big beast. Further, the digital subscriptions of the four biggest digital news organisations – NYT, WaPo, Gannett and WSJ – together have about 30% of the total market, compared with the equivalent 50% in the UK. But fully half of that is the NYT, which is way out in front. It should be noted, however, that many of those subscriptions may be coming from the same pool of readers who, say, subscribe to both the WSJ and NYT. 

Transatlantic challenges

These figures show that there is a sizeable market for digital news in both countries (though much larger than in the US) and that, while the brands you might expect are doing well, there are clearly a lot of people paying for news but aren’t giving that money to the biggest outlets. Of course, the big question for everyone is whether (or not) they can increase the pool of people paying. Keep watching.