This year’s winning paper in the ACES research competition provides more support for the idea that audiences value online news as a professional product, rather than the sort of product that audiences use simply because it’s cheap and available.
Louisa Ha and Xiaoqun Zhang of Bowling Green State University used data from a national Pew survey as well as their own surveys of students and a general audience to look at online news use through the lens of economics. They looked at two main questions: whether a print newspaper and its online version complement each other or compete with each other, and whether online news is seen as an “inferior good.”
Macroeconomics textbooks explain an inferior good as the sort of product or service you buy less of as your income increases. With a “normal” good, like online movies, demand tends to rise when incomes rise: getting a raise lets you watch more online movies in a month. That’s how print newspapers were viewed in the research Ha and Zhang reviewed for their paper. Inferior goods work the other way. When you get a raise, you don’t buy more generic peanut butter; you switch to the name brand you remember from childhood.
None of the three survey groups showed income as a significant predictor of news use, the authors found in rejecting the “inferior good” hypothesis. And among their student and resident samples, online news about favorite topics was perceived as being of higher quality than print news.
The authors also found that print and online news use tended to be complementary, with each having distinct advantages, rather than competing over the same advantages. There was a significant relationship between income and newspaper subscriptions but not between income and online subscriptions. The authors concluded that online news is more like a “public good,” for which their example is broadcast TV: More people can watch without adding costs for the broadcaster or diminishing the current audience’s use.
The authors conclude that print newspapers still have “core value” for now, though “for college students, the newspaper is in danger.” They suggest that indirect forms of payment, such as advertising or subscriptions through e-readers or tablets, could let news organizations take advantage of the “public good” aspects of online news.
The study is a reassuring reminder that online news isn’t the sort of Brand X that readers will abandon as their incomes rise. Editors can take some reassurance from that, as long as they continue to make the case for the value they add to the brand – whatever that brand is.
The ACES award honors academic research about story editing, headline writing and other topics related to editing. The research award is part of an effort by ACES to connect academic research to the daily work of editors. A call for papers for next year’s award will go out later this year.