Nine years ago today, I presented my first paper at my first academic conference.
I was a master’s student at the Newhouse School at Syracuse. My research partner Liz Woolery and I presented an experimental study we had done for Dr. Pam Shoemaker’s quantitative research methods class at the AEJMC Midwinter Conference at the University of Oklahoma.
It’s funny to look back on that trip. When you’re a graduate student, conferences matter so much. You’ve never done anything like this before, or you’ve only done a few, and you’re thinking about the doctoral programs you might apply to or the jobs you want to get. I can remember practicing this presentation with Liz over and over and over again, making sure we had things just right.
But what stands out to me most about that trip is the topic we chose. From the abstract:
This study examines whether consumers view higher-cost news sources as more credible than lower-cost ones; print news as more credible than online; and whether there is an interaction between cost and platform in regard to credibility.
Remember, this is from 2009-2010 This was a weird, interstitial time in journalism. We were fully in the online world, but things were much more in flux. We knew that print wasn’t the future but didn’t have a good map for the online business. Social media was new and seen as a powerful force for good. Citizen journalism was the buzzphrase.
It was still a year before Netflix separated its streaming and DVD services. Streaming music were a blip on the radar. Newspapers were starting to try paywalls. There was still a lot of debate about whether people would/should pay for online content. The whole “information is made to be free” ethos was still very real.
That was the environment we did this study in. You can read a version of it here. Be warned - it is an excellent study by two first-year grad students.
Liz is now doing incredible work as the deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Free Expression Project. And I’m still here, writing about the business of digital news.
Because with the growth of subscription media online, the sustained success of The Athletic and the general evolution of paying for digital news, our study feels incredibly relevant almost a decade later.
Here’s what we found:
We found that high-cost online news was viewed as the most credible, followed in order by low-cost online news, low-cost-print news and high-cost print news. We had expected to find that high-cost print news would be viewed as the most credible – in fact, it was seen as the least credible. ...
The current economic model for online news is free distribution, whereas people pay either per day or per subscription for newspapers. While consumers do have to pay to access the Internet in general, they do not pay for the news source itself. However, this study shows that, a newspaper could charge more for its online edition than for its paper edition and still retain high news credibility. In fact, the data show that a newspaper that charges more for its online content had its stories viewed as more credible than other news sources. From a credibility standpoint, newspapers would benefit from charging a higher cost for their online content.
At the same time, many newspapers are raising their newsstand prices, due to a combination of falling profits and rising production costs. From a credibility standpoint, this would be one of the worst things a newspaper could do. High-cost print news ranked as the least credible in this study, behind lower-cost print source.