Prepare to be (not even remotely) shocked: Many consumers are reluctant to pay for online news. That's a terrible tiding for many media stocks, particularly newspapers, which already have a hard enough time making ends meet.

According to a recent survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (a Pew Research Center project), a measly 19% of online news consumers surveyed said they'd want to pay for online news. Worse yet, that percentage includes people who already do pay subscription fees. Even more disturbingly, at least for newspaper companies and their shareholders, online readers seem like a strikingly disloyal bunch. Roughly 82% of folks with favorite news sites said they'd switch to a new resource if asked to pay.

Keeping up with current events
News Corp.
's (NYSE: NWS) Wall Street Journal has been one of the few newspapers to successfully charge for access to its site. Washington Post's (NYSE: WPO) flagship publication and Gannett's (NYSE: GCI) USA TODAY have been free online for ages. On the other hand, New York Times (NYSE: NYT) recently talked about reinstituting a pay wall, even though it abandoned a previous experiment in online subscriptions in 2007.

The Internet hosts plenty of popular news outlets, many of which offer a plethora of sources to choose from. Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO), AOL (NYSE: AOL), and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) News have all become popular destinations. Social networking sites are also becoming a nascent conduit for news dissemination, as users decide which of the Internet's articles they consider fit to print (and discuss).

Online news's competitive landscape looks deadly, given its increasingly stingy readership. A USA TODAY article on the survey pointed out that online advertising has taken a hit; last year, research firm eMarketer said that ad revenue fell last year for the first time since 2002. (That drop undoubtedly correlates with the health of the overall economy.)

Furthermore, newspaper advertising fell by 26% last year; local TV and radio ad revenue dropped by 22%; network TV ad revenue dipped 8%. Cable news was the only media niche offering a bright spot, revenue-wise.

While many media companies do need to cut costs to make ends meet, the article pointed out that newspaper spending on reporting and editing has fallen 30% over the past decade. If the quality of coverage deteriorates, and demoralized workers quit or defect, traditional media outlets' rivals could exploit this weakness by luring consumers to higher-quality options. (Think it can't happen? The entire staff of a small newspaper in South Carolina recently quit en masse to start their own paper.)  

The mourning addition
Investors should be wary of stocks in big media companies that face both consumer pushback and a difficult and changing competitive environment. In that light, newspaper stocks look particularly daunting -- even the revered New York Times.

For years, New York Times' revenues have been either decreasing or anemic; last year, revenue dropped 17%. Its total debt-to-equity ratio has now reached a staggering 210%. If readers balk at a new paywall (as the survey implies they will), New York Times' situation could slide from bad to worse.

Shareholders (or potential shareholders) should also note that New York Times also doled out considerable salary increases for several high-ranking executives last year, even while laying off workers and grappling with a weak advertising market. To me, that move suggests that management might place its own interests first and foremost.

What circumstances, if any, would sway you to pay up for online news? How would you fix the current media mess? Take our poll, then sound off in the comment box below.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy.