Having grown up with a wealth of news and information at our fingertips for free, my generation of 20-somethings is heading into adulthood without much experience paying for that content. The question is, will content providers ever turn us into paying customers?

Teens using Laptops
photo: AP Images

I distinctly remember learning how to read, and it wasn’t from a book or in a kindergarten classroom.

It was sitting at the breakfast table with my Dad every morning, when we would read the weather section of the Washington Post. We checked to see if it was hot in Arizona (it usually was) and cold in Canada (it always was). For this reason I’ve always felt an affection for the DC-area newspaper, and I continue to read some of its blogs and politics coverage to this day. But when the newspaper rolls out a paywall this summer, it’s doubtful I’ll start paying for access. I can still log in using my parents’ subscription, but if they stop paying? I might owe that newspaper my literacy, but with the rest of the internet at my fingertips, it’s still not enough to get me to pay.

There was an excellent post on Buzzfeed earlier this week about HBO Go passwords, in which John Herrman surveyed everyone in his office and asked how most of them access HBO, a content provider that only gives digital access to cable subscribers. The responses evoked a trend I see among my own 20-something friends, which is that hardly anyone actually subscribes to HBO.

The anecdote struck me as one that perfectly illustrates how much of my generation is building habits around digital content and what exactly we’re willing to pay for. We’ve grown up with a wealth of news and video available for free on the internet, and for many of us, we also have access to high-quality content through parents or friends with subscriptions to services like Netflix or the New York Times. We built media habits around this content from an early age, but we were never forced to actually pay for content.

And there are a lot of us. Will those companies be able to convince my generation that their content is special or unique — and that one day, we should pay for it ourselves?

Content for free, at our fingertips

Online video - streaming video - people looking at computer - teens on laptopIn some ways, it’s pretty obvious why my generation is reluctant to pay for content — it’s because we’ve never had to.

I’m 22, and I took typing lessons in fourth grade, had computer classes on how to do Google searches and make Powerpoints in middle school, and joined Facebook when it launched in my early days of high school. Until I left for college, my family’s desktop computer was set to open to the New York Times homepage. (At the time, it was free for everyone.) My peers and I learned how to write research papers in high school by citing sources online and by not copying things from Wikipedia, and most of us read Hamlet with the assistance of Sparknotes.com. We discovered music on YouTube, and a few lucky kids got smartphones in high school, which were ubiquitous by the time we hit college.

My generation has grown up connected to the internet, and we’ve never been at a loss for finding news and information on the web — for free.

Families have been sharing physical newspapers and televisions for years, of course, but when my parents’ generation left home for college and then grad school or jobs, they had to call up their local newspaper or cable or phone providers if they wanted any of these services. Now, there’s less incentive than ever to leave Mom and Dad’s family cell phone plan, and it seems that for many of my peers, the same applies to digital subscriptions to newspapers, magazines, and cable subscriptions.

Out of curiosity, I asked about 15 of my friends (most of whom are recent college graduates in varying levels of employment) what content they personally pay to consume. The answer from most of them — minus a few New Yorker-subscriber outliers — was not much. But when I asked everyone what they read or watch using a parent’s (or a friend’s parent’s) subscriptions, the answers went way up. Almost everyone had access to Netflix, and a good number read the news on paywalled websites like the New York Times, and soon, The Washington Post.

But when I asked if anyone would pay for this content themselves if their parents stopped paying, hardly anyone said they would. The only media that most people said they would pay for was Netflix, and a few said they would subscribe to avoid paywalls on their local newspapers.

My friends of course aren’t representative of the population at large, but as mainly upper-middle class college graduates, they’re the demographic combination that’s currently most likely to pay for news online, according to a 2010 Pew study. While most of my friends said they read the news and watch video on a regular basis through their parents’ subscriptions, most said if they lost free access, they’d probably go somewhere else rather than pay. That might not be to a place that offers the same quality, but at least it would be free.

As one friend told me, “If it’s online, it feels like it should be free.”

Finding solutions to get us to pay — one day

Girls Lena DunhamNow, it’s not necessarily surprising that 22-year olds aren’t clamoring for financial advice on retirement from the Wall Street Journal or picking up the tab on multiple subscriptions when the youth unemployment rate remains at 13.1 percent. Many people don’t have parents who subscribe to anything, and are perfectly content with the free content on the web and videos on YouTube. And for those who do, mooching a Netflix subscription still pales in comparison to the cost of cell phone plans 20-something share with families. Plus, my age group has always made up a fairly low percentage of newspaper readers anyway. Presumably the value we place on news will rise when we have kids and own houses and spend a few more years paying taxes.

It’s also possible that we’ll have to look beyond just newspapers and magazines to find media services for which my generation will pay. While I personally pay for a variety of news subscriptions, Twitter remains my most valuable source of information and I would probably pay more for access to that feed than anything else. Instagram might not be the future of news and information, but it’s fair to say a lot of people would probably pay for that.

HBO has clearly decided that letting us mooch off subscriptions to access Girls is worth it, since one day some of us will grow up, get jobs, and subscribe. But hoping and praying, while perhaps the defining media business strategy of this age, is not a particularly compelling long-term bet. Perhaps it should consider low-cost subscriptions meant for recent graduates, that would get us used to paying something but at rates more in line with our typical income levels. Maybe it means creating or structuring content specifically for younger readers and their digital tastes, or adopting micro-payments that remind us more of purchasing an iTunes song than a year-long subscription.

But even if the content providers move in this direction, will my generation ever pay for quality media? We have grown up with the world at our fingertips on the web, mainly for free. And we’re taking those habits and assumptions with us into adulthood.

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  1. Nice article, and an interesting perspective. I think this actually says a lot about the roles parents play in effectively pushing their children to be more independent. How long is too long to remain in the same familial construct you had during high school and college? And what happens when the cord is cut, so to speak, is that suddenly all that was once free is now viewed in a different light. You’ll find you’re much more discerning about what you consume when it’s your dollar. It’s called budgeting and making choices. Everyone has to do it.

    And the flip side, will content providers put restrictions in place to curb account sharing? Netflix caps the number of devices and simultaneous streaming. Is it a deliberate move by others to allow for more account sharing, or just an oversight that will be tightened up once the structure of paywalls becomes more mature?

  2. Keith Tomasek Friday, March 29, 2013

    Tim, good point about the role of parents and other role models. From my point f view I would say historically speaking young people are more willing to pay for “experiences” – think travel or an event, etc., and collectibles – fashion, music, etc. than content.

  3. Wait, so you’re okay using your parents’ access for Netflix and the NYT, but not okay with paying for it yourselves?

    And there’s no reason to get off your parents cell phone plans?

    I’m only 33 so I can’t pull a “when I was young”, but wtf is wrong with you kids? Isn’t being independent, at least from your parents, part of the cool thing about growing up?

    I have access to just as much free stuff as you do, but apparently I’m smart enough to understand that a) if I’m not paying, I’m not the customer and b) if I don’t pay for things I like, I can’t be upset if they go away.

    1. Tyler, love this: “if I don’t pay for things I like, I can’t be upset if they go away.” When you mooch and have no ownership, the company owes you nothing.

      1. But on the kids side, that’s sort of a side effect of recent media policy, no? All the media companies are telling us we are perpetually renting something. It’s not ours. As long as they keep up that charade, you can understand why people are less likely to go out of their way to pay for something they cannot own.

      2. That’s exactly how I feel, Dan, and I’m 42! I’m told to think about most media these days as an “experience”, like a movie I only see once unless I want to pay again. In that case, there is very little media out there I want to pay the asked price for, so I just don’t. I’m not mooching off anyone else, and I’m not pirating – but I’m also not giving Big Content much of my money.

    2. Are you saying that if you’re not paying, you are the product being sold?

    3. I’m 44 first Industry complained with the VCR, before that others complained of TV, before that was the complaing of radio, before that the phonograph… Do you see the point? Those in current power always resist change and say the sky is falling when something new comes along. I recorded songs off the radio when I was growing up in the 80’s. That’s no different from using the tech of today to get songs. Networks should let their local stations supply the shows etc as they are broadcast online so they can make revenue from ads. Local stations should put their own news online so it can be viewed and sale ads like they do for watching on a TV. Don’t try and make criminals of people and change with the times instead of the old way.

      1. They’re not willing to pay at all, and online ad revenue isn’t a drop in the bucket compared to TV revenue.

    4. There’s a very simple reason for not leaving a family cell phone plan. Most of the lines that the children are using are a cheap $10-15/month add-on to the base price. No rational person is going to give up paying that in favor of spending $60+ each month on their own plan.

  4. You say your generation but I would argue that people like myself who are 44 and and started getting online with WIndows 3.11 are just as likely. I used Excite, Lycos, in those days. I never paid for the Washington Post or other newspapers even when at home. I’d read USA Today and other newspapers in the library. I don’t own a TV and I watch my favorite shows online with CBS, NBC, ABC. I pay for Netflix. I don’t use Spotify or anything like that. I watch some other shows on Hulu. I have not started paying for Hulu yet. I don’t watch enough sports to justify paying for it. I did watch part of the Super Bowl online. My feeling is if you are showing me ads like I would see on TV why should I be paying Extra? I do like the shows Netflix has came out with. I’d paid more for more recent movies. The Industry didn’t like Chuck D’s idea of of treating downloaded songs on Napster as if they were on the radio. His idea would havie seen people being paid. Instead the industry wanted to go after people. Even with the so called legal buying of songs on Itunes etc most artist are not getting the money. When I was a teen I was irecoring songs off the radio onto tape. That more or less was the same thing as using Napster or even recording from Youtue now. So really the status quo needs to change.

  5. As an early adopter of internet tech (for my generation anyway – I haven’t been twenty-something for a while now), I have always found that the problem with paywalls is that the ad-based and the paywall paradigms simply don’t match up. Why would I transition from getting hundreds of sources for free (more or less), to paying full price for a single source?To recreate in the paywall model that I have enjoyed for the past twenty some-odd years would literally cost me hundreds of dollars. If, on the other hand, news sources got together and aggregated their content, I might be more inclined to think about it. But it’s going to require a major paradigm shift away from individual news sources and to something more akin to digital distribution model favored by the TV and movie industries.

  6. I think you have some very good points. However, your argument over values the free aspect of content and undervalues the access part. People have always been willing to pay for content, but we haven’t always had access to it where we wanted to consume it. Quite frankly there is unlimited free content on the web, but we still pay for things we perceive value in. Netflix for example as opposed to watching more cat videos on youtube which are free. Netflix is available everywhere I want to watch it, so I pay for it. This issue is soo much more complex, but you did touch on some of the problems.

    1. In the 80’s I wasn’t paying for watching content on CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. My family had this thing called an antenna that would bring those local stations. The price for cable was not worth the cost when we moved from a rural area with no cable to a town with cable. If their was a certain station you wanted to watch you were held hostage by the cable provider. So even if you wanted local stations only you had to pay for extra that you never watched. Right my mom is paying freaking cable just for The Weather Channel. She doesn’t watch anything else on TV. Tell me who really is ripping who off? She just pays for basic but gosh that price is high when for just one channel. I’m slowy showing my mom she can watch shows on her laptop or hook her laptop to her TV. My apartment is right above hers. My brother lives across the hall. He pay cable just for Espn. The rest of the shows like Pickers etc he can watch on Hulu. I’m hoping he will drop ESPN. Shentel would get money just from internet from the three of us paying for acess.

  7. marilynnbyerly Friday, March 29, 2013

    There is no Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. If enough people don’t pay for content, there is no content except that which isn’t worth paying for.

    Anyone who thinks that truly talented creators will write the books, compose the songs, or do movies for nothing are deluded about the realities of the world.

    If the demographics of payment are such that only older people pay for content, then the young should expect less aimed at them and more aimed at their parents and grandparents.

    The selfish thing to do is to pay for content, not take everything for free which hurts you in the long run.

    1. The problem is content was controlled by the man and now the man does not want to adopt. The man has always overcharged for his content. The man does not want to change to the times. The man wants to live in the past where it controlled. Reality is books are overpriced, digital downloads of books are over priced as are digital songs. I had one of the first cd players in the 80’s. I got told a lie that the price of cd’s would commie down. They never did. There was only a few groups I would pay for a cassette or later on a cd of. The rest of the time was just for one or two songs. So, I just started recording them from the radio and had my mix tape. Also 99% of the contents makers are not making money off their work but the man. In the case of bands it would be the record labels making the money with the content creators actually oweing Money to them!!!

      1. How about the idea that newsrooms have had to slash their staffs because of falling revenue? They haven’t figured out a way to replace this loss of print revenue with online revenue quite yet (since so few people seem inclined to pay for online subscriptions). This results in less original content, less investigative reporting, and less effective news coverage in general. I’m sure that almost all reporters still want to report high quality, in depth stories, but that they also need to feed their families and pay their bills. If no one pays for content, that content is necessarily going to get cheaper and cheaper and in the business of news, that can be a real danger.

      2. Newsrooms aren’t content they’re state propaganda. They should pay us to watch.

    2. “Anyone who thinks that truly talented creators will write the books, compose the songs, or do movies for nothing are deluded about the realities of the world.”

      Sounds like the plaintive inductions of the aspiring artist…completely incorrect as well. Artists will continue to write the books, compose the songs, etc, regardless of whether there is profit in it. As long as there are people there will be an massive oversupply of artistic talent (they tend to breed more than regular folks since art is sexy). That is precisely why artists are always starving…there is never any scarcity of art and that will never change.

      Conversely, if art were to disappear, then all artists must logically deduct that they’ve chosen a dead-end career path and should go back to World of Warcraft.

      1. marilynnbyerly D2D2 Sunday, March 31, 2013

        You really should have clicked my information link, D2D2. You’d have discovered that I’ve been a professional writer for over thirty years with five novels and a short story anthology in print right now as well as hundreds of articles on writing, publishing, and copyright to my credit.

        I have spent those thirty years in close contact with hundreds of professional writers from NY Times bestsellers to midlist writers.

        A vast majority of the pro writers will tell you that writing is a hard profession that requires years to learn the craft of writing and thousands of hours sitting on your butt in front of a computer while everyone else you know is going to movies, dating, and having lives.

        The pay, in a majority of cases, is poor. Most pro writers could make more per hour at a minimum wage job than they do at writing. We also have the expenses of being a pro writer as well as the time and expense of marketing ourselves. (Publishers only spend promotion money at writers who are already bestsellers. Dumb, but true.)

        Would we do all this for nothing because a bunch of jerks won’t pay the cost of a Starbucks coffee for one of our books?

        The short answer is no, we aren’t your bitches.

  8. Since most are disclosing, I am on the brink of 50 and I have a very hard time paying for what passes as content these days on the Internet. The quality is almost invariably lower than its traditional media counterpart (mp3 vs. CD, streaming video vs. Blu-ray, etc.) with the dial pointed at convenience and ease of consumption, or opinion wanders in and out of the article like a breeze creating challenges in measuring the accuracy and value of the content. Honestly, the signal to ratio is so bad, it is hard to identify content that is truly worth the investment.

    1. Madyb, but those cd’s sound terrible compared with records in sound. I brought cd’s over and over again when they came out with cd players you could install in your vehicle. Those things destroyed your cds fast. I was always replacing my favorite band’s cd’s.

  9. Publications like The New York Times, and soon, apparently, The Washington Post, are becoming increasingly irrelevant. When I hit my free article limit on NYT, I just move on to something else. I vacation in rural Western Maryland and used to keep up on events there via the website of the weekly newspaper until it erected its paywall. I wrote to the editor that this was doing a disservice to his advertisers by limiting exposure of their events and services to out-of-towners. He told me that I was cheap and to get lost. I’m 53, by the way.

    1. Hey u were going to DCL and I’m ten mins from there

  10. While the article has good intentions it’s written by a 22 year old, one who probably loves the show Girls, and probably relates to Lena Dunham’s character in some sort of deep way. I’m not discrediting her as a writer or journalist, but she puts too much weight on her position and “her generation.” I’m 25, live in SF, and am a member of the tech industry so we’re nearly part of the same generation and sect of the working world, and while I’ve never had parents I could mooch from, I would tell her to wait only a year or two. Things change. You (hopefully) mature immensely, have more bills to pay, and realize that if you don’t support (with dollars and recommendations) your favorite content sources (services and artists alike) they will shrivel up and disappear forever.

    In the last few years I’ve decided to pay for everything I like, and I feel the same sentiment from my twenty-something friends. You begin to see the world as it is, and for the first time start to take off the rose-colored glasses you’ve been seeing the world through your whole life. Also, I think her likely middle-to-upper class roots are more telling than her age. The trend of the entitled youth is where the trouble lies. Not to get on a soapbox, but those who had to work and overcome huge obstacles to get where they are appreciate, recognize, and compensate hard work more discernibly.

    The author needs to step away from her naive view of the world and take it all in. Outside of the insulated youth tech sector, many of whom have safety nets like parent cell-phone plans and Netflix accounts they can remain using as grown adults, there are plenty of young people paying for content. Just not maybe those who feel entitled to freedom and aren’t willing to sacrifice anything to pay for it. Curbing ignorance is hard work.

    Don’t get me wrong, I hate paying $35 to get the Times every Sunday (and for digital access), $50+ a year for the myriad of other publication I get delivered to my real and digital inbox, and the money I spend on media like Netflix, Hulu, and movies/music. I’m not well off. I still torrent plenty, but only things I consider too big to be affected: Hollywood blockbusters, HBO TV shows, and other sources too hard to find or too overpriced to consider paying for.

    The Internet is unfortunately reinforcing the feelings shared by every teen/early twentysomething. I was once rebellious, an entitled youth who felt everything should be free. Then I grew up. I’m still rebellious as ever, but I rebel when rebellion is appropriate. The Internet is reinforcing those slightly misguided notions into permanent character traits. It’s sad. Realizing the world is run by money is hard to accept, but that’s what growing up is all about. Not paying for what you can afford is the problem. It’s not more complicated than that. Us kids have to make that decision, and most of us will. Those that stay on their parents cell-phone plan and never get their own $8/mo streaming Netflix account just aren’t growing up. They’ll probably just mooch off of a responsible friend. Trust me, I have friends that mooch off my contribution. But I guess that’s better than mommy and daddy. At least your friend will probably call you out on your shit and make you pay for it already. Some things require you to pay it forward, and great content and art is one of those. Your money becomes more than admission. It’s an investment in the things you want around when your eventual moochers pop into your life and disrupt everything.

    Grow up.

    1. I think you make good points, Joey, and I’m not necessarily advocating for freeloading as a long-term strategy. (FWIW, I pay for my own cell and most of my media subscriptions, so I’m all for paying for what you value.) My question is, when our generation does decides to pay up (as it sounds like most of your friends have, and I expect mine will in a few years), what will we decide to put our dollars behind. As a journalist obviously I hope people decide to invest in media, but I’m not sure if they will, or how that will actually shake out.

      1. “generation of 20-somethings is heading into adulthood without much experience paying for that content.”

        Eliza what is your statement based on?

        Znak it! did a study (http://bit.ly/UzFcNT) and it shows that Web users aged 18-24 are three times more likely to buy online content than the so called “seniors” (55+) and two times more likely than the Web users aged 45-54 are. This can in part be explained by the younger population’s exposure to iTunes, Spotify and other paid services (games, SMS, etc).

        There is one big difference though: younger populations prefer on-demand one-time payments rather than long term subscription.

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