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Study: Small Papers Twice as Likely to Charge for Online Content

Most daily publishers agree that readers will pay for material, but it’s the lower-circulation titles that are leading the way

In a finding that might seem to run contrary to conventional wisdom, smaller daily newspapers are leading the way in charging for content online by a nearly 2-to1 margin compared to their bigger-circulation counterparts.

The University of Missouri recently interviewed more than 300 newspaper publishers and discovered that, while 46 percent of daily newspapers with circulations under 25,000 charged for at least some of their online content, only 24 percent of the dailies with circulations higher than 25,000 currently do so.

Also Read: It's Official: New York Times to Charge for Online Content

The phone interviews, which were conducted in April, were culled from a random sample of the nation's 1.390 daily newspapers.

Despite the findings, newspaper publishers overall feel that charging for content online is a feasible move; two-thirds of the study's respondents stated that they believe readers will pay for online content, while only 14 percent said that they believe audiences will ever do so.

That level of confidence was echoed when publishers were queried about their plans to charge for online content in the future; of the newspapers that aren't currently charging a fee for their online material, 35 percent have definite plans to do so, while another 50 percent say they might do so in the future. A mere 15 percent — roughly the same number who expressed a no-confidence vote in paid online content — said they have no plans to charge.

Which isn't to say that publishers — already reeling from a dive in advertising revenue and plummeting circulations — see paid online content as a panacea for their financial woes. Of those currently charging for online content, a mere 10 percent expect that the pay plans will make up more than 20 percent of their digital revenue in the next 12 months.

While smaller newspapers are dominating when it comes to paid online content, the bigger outlets have been leading the charge when it comes to applications; of daily papers with a circulation of 25.000 or higher, 65 percent have a mobile app, compared to 21 percent of their smaller counterparts. The trend holds for tablet apps, with 39 percent of the big boys offering a tablet app compared to 9 percent of the smaller papers.

Whatever its form, digital revenue for newspapers has a long way to go before it surpasses print revenue. A solid 85 percent of newspapers who offer digital content say that it accounts for a maximum of 15 percent of their overall revenue.