Local people who also read the print edition are the largest group using newspaper Web sites. But the most loyal, most satisfied and most upscale readers are signing in from outside the circulation area.

Both older and younger audiences see the Web sites of traditional media outlets as more credible than the newspaper or television newscast itself, though the older folks are more critical about credibility across the board.

Despite opening up their sites to all sorts of user contributions, online newspaper editors saw their role in covering the 2008 campaign and election as a highly traditional one, with information from journalists at its core.  

Everyone knows the Internet encourages and facilitates links among information and individuals, but an increased emphasis on digital products also turns out to correspond with more links among media organizations themselves.

Those are among the findings of newspaper industry-related research that won a competition sponsored by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication's Council of Affiliates and its Newspaper Division, based on ideas from the International Newspaper Marketing Association. 

What Research Tells Us

Like their newsroom colleagues, media scholars are seeking to understand the turmoil roiling the newspaper industry and to help identify potential ways of dealing with it. These four studies were among hundreds presented and debated at the annual journalism educators' convention this summer. Abstracts are available online, and most authors would gladly share the full paper and welcome your thoughts and suggestions. 

The research papers highlighted here, selected for their relevance to the industry, each capture a piece of the ongoing change, attempting to describe and interpret it but also to extract from the findings some ideas that can suggest a way forward. 

Some of the findings point to economic concerns, such as the suggestion by Hsiang Iris Chyi and her University of Texas-Austin colleagues that the interests of loyal "long-distance" users might offer a good test of limited online content fees. Others emphasize organizational approaches, such as USC's Matthew Weber's look at the opportunities for innovation raised by the expanding networks of digital media enterprises.

Some scholarship highlights ethical issues, such as the importance of online channels in establishing and maintaining credibility identified by Florida State's Audrey Post and her co-researchers. And some consider effects of the changing media environment on the core role of the journalist, as I attempted in my study.

"One Product, Three Markets"
Paper by Hsiang Iris Chyi, Mengchieh Jacie Yang, George Sylvie, Seth C. Lewis and Nan Zheng (Media Economics Research Group, University of Texas-Austin)

Using information gathered in 2007 and 2008 from a Belden Associates (now Belden Interactive) survey of nearly 26,000 users of 28 U.S. newspaper Web sites, Chyi and her colleagues zeroed in on just who those people are, what they are doing online and how satisfied they are with what they see.

They identified three groups of readers for these sites, all of which were affiliated with local or regional newspapers with an average weekday circulation around 73,000. 

  • "Long-distance" users (27.5 percent of the total) were those who lived outside the newspaper's market area. They relied on the online version exclusively.
  • Local users (72.5 percent) lived in the paper's market area. Among them, about two-thirds (48 percent of all users) read both the print and online products at least once a week and were classified as "hybrid local" users; the rest (about a quarter of the total) read the newspaper only online.

Looking more closely at each group, the researchers found:

  • The local online-only readers were generally younger. They also were the least satisfied with various types of content, both editorial and commercial, and with the overall site.
  • The local hybrid readers were the most active site visitors. They were more likely to check out online classified ads as well as news. More than three-quarters of these people were paying for the print newspaper, most of them by subscription.
  • However, the long-distance users, whom the researchers said many newspaper companies see as an "inconvenient truth" because of their perceived lack of appeal to local advertisers, were in some ways the most interesting group. 

Most of these non-local users had strong community ties; more than 40 percent were former residents, and another 16 percent had relatives or friends living there. They also had more long-term loyalty; nearly two-thirds had been coming for three years or more. They expressed more satisfaction both with particular content sections and with the site overall. They were, on the whole, better educated and had higher incomes. And they were especially interested in local sports information. 

Chyi and her colleagues point out that this group may offer interesting opportunities for newspaper companies thinking about charging for parts of their Web site. They suggest, for instance, that a good paid strategy might involve targeting these long-distance users with expanded or in-depth online coverage of local teams.

"Perceived Differences in Credibility"
Paper by Audrey Post, Jonathan Adams, Juliann Cortese, Gary Heald and John DuBard (Florida State University)

In their study, Post and her colleagues compared perceptions about the credibility of traditional media channels with that of their online counterparts, as well as with online-only news sites, among two groups of people: Florida State college students and older Tallahassee-area residents, around 430 people in all. 

None of the seven media channels earned a particularly high score –- the average was around 3 on a 5-point scale -- on the five credibility criteria: fairness, accuracy, lack of bias, completeness and trustworthiness. 

However, newspaper and television Web sites were seen as more credible than their offline counterparts; in fact, online newspaper sites had the highest credibility ranking of any of the channels. Online-only news sites earned the next-highest scores, with both older and younger people seeing them as relatively credible. There was no significant difference between the rankings for radio and radio Web sites.

Television news, which dominated credibility comparisons for 40 years in the latter half of the 20th century, landed at the very bottom of a seven-channel comparison, for both older and younger people. The researchers suggest this may be a result of increasingly blurred lines between news and entertainment, though interestingly, television Web sites did not seem affected.

Older news consumers -- the mean age of the non-student respondents in this study was around 64, an age group with generally higher-than-average use of traditional news media -- were more critical of the media than the college students. Perhaps, Post and her colleagues suggest, people not yet especially savvy about recognizing credibility "guideposts" are simply giving all sources the benefit of the doubt.  

"Role Call"
Paper by Jane B. Singer (University of Central Lancashire, UK / University of Iowa)

Compared with 2000 and 2004, newspaper Web sites are more likely to include content from sources outside the newsroom in their campaign and election coverage. All but one of the newspapers in a 2008 study included user contributions, ranging from comments on stories to blogs to election-night reports. Yet in describing their online goals and accomplishments, journalists focused on the utility of their own political information, particularly its comprehensiveness.

The study, the third in a series, sought information from online editors of the largest newspaper in each state, as well as all other papers with print circulations over 250,000, a total of 76 papers in all. Thirty-two editors completed the online survey, and another 14 answered at least one question. I found: 

  • Informing the public was the primary goal of campaign and election coverage for all 36 editors answering the question; they highlighted the greater speed, volume and detail of information online compared with print. Previous studies suggested a bit more emphasis on civic discourse.
  • Asked to list three online-only content areas of which they were most proud, only two editors mentioned user contributions: an election-night chat and convention blogs by local party chairmen. Another 10 mentioned personalization options, such as interactive voter guides or customizable maps.
  • Most said user contributions did not influence their own coverage; if it did, the influence consisted primarily of raising issues or questions for journalists to pursue.
  • Online and print products are becoming increasingly distinct. Everyone published at least some political material online ahead of print in 2008, and everyone published content online that never appeared in the newspaper at all. Journalist blogs gained popularity, as did video coverage. 

Overall, I conclude, "although users and journalists may be co-producers in the literal sense that both publish within the shared space of an online newspaper Web site, the published items remain separate and unequal in journalists' eyes." Instead, as they navigate a very troubled media landscape, journalists seem to be emphasizing and reasserting what they see as their own vital occupational role as our democracy's information providers.

"Experimenting with Interactive Media"
Paper by Matthew Weber (University of Southern California)

In a study of news organizations' digital strategy over time, Weber found that hyperlink diversity is important to the success of online news sites. Blogs, in particular, attract users not only by providing unique perspectives but also by linking to varied and interesting Web sites. And it's not just the sites you link to that matter -- it's the sites your online partners link to, as well.

Using a custom-built database that eventually will contain 10 years worth of data from sources including archive.org, the Editor & Publisher Yearbook and the Security and Exchange Commission's Edgar Online, Weber traced the evolving organizational strategies of traditional and new media organizations in the online space. He developed "linking portfolios" to trace the effect of different hyperlinking strategies. 

The key finding: Newspaper companies need to link -- frequently -- to external sites. But they also must pay attention to the sites to which their organizational partners link. Moreover, companies that are increasing their interactive ventures are likely to have more of those online partners, even as the number of offline partnerships is shrinking. 

For example, the number of organizations and sub-organizations in one traditional newspaper company's network of interactive partnerships, joint ventures and cross-investments grew from 25 in 2002 to 52 in 2007 through an expansion of online initiatives. The number of visitors to its Web sites grew 128 percent during the same period.
Weber's ongoing research includes interviews with newspaper executives and staffers across the country. He is encountering a fear of "over-innovation." One marketing manager suggested colleagues were suffering from "change fatigue" following round after round of new initiatives. "It's clear that the company wants to change, but it's hard to keep a clear destination in mind with so many different processes for innovation in place," the manager said. 

Looking ahead

In coming months, members of the AEJMC Outreach Committee hope to continue working with Poynter.org to highlight other relevant academic research. Please let us know what you think and tell us what you'd like to see. In addition to adding your comments below, you can contact Poynter Online Director Julie Moos, at jmoos@poynter.org, or Outreach Committee Chair Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver at kopenhav@fiu.edu. We look forward to hearing from you!