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April 23, 2012, 2:23 p.m.

Are you a young dude interested in news? All else equal, this study says you’re a top paywall target

A new study from the University of Texas explores the interrelatedness between online news use, preference, and intent to pay.

Here’s a biggie: How do you get someone to pay for online news? A new study (PDF here) out of the University of Texas develops a theoretical model to begin answering that question.

The goal of the study, by Iris Chyi and Angela M. Lee, is to clarify the interrelationship among news preference, use, and intent to pay. What emerges, among other things, is a profile of the kind of people most likely to pay for online news: Young males who are — wait for it — interested in the news.

That last part is key, because while younger people are more likely to pay for news online, the study finds, they’re also less likely to be interested in news in the first place.

Another paradox: People say they prefer reading print products, yet online use is growing. In other words, consumers don’t always use what they prefer, and they’re not always willing to spend money on what they use.

That’s an idea that Chyi has been exploring since the 1990s. She sometimes refers to it as “ramen noodle theory,” which we’ve written about before: People might prefer steak over ramen — but when it comes time to reach for their wallets, they opt for ramen more often. Because it’s free and abundant, the “ramen” is perceived as inferior — which reinforces consumers’ preference for “steak.” This could help explain why Chyi found “very weak correlations” between use and intent to pay in her latest study. This is from its abstract:

While media scholars tend to take “media use” as an indicator of popularity or diffusion, media use alone does not fully capture the complexity of online news consumption. For instance, given free online news offerings in most cases, consumers do not always use what they prefer, and most are not willing to pay for what they use. This study identifies three distinct factors — preference, use, and paying intent — each helps explain a specific facet of online news consumption.

Given how many variables play a role in a consumer’s decision to buy online news, the takeaway is a bit more complicated, and that’s kind of the point: Fully understanding online news consumption is about more than just looking at how often people are going online. News organizations must also dig into what consumer’s want, what they’re willing to buy, then figure out how (and why) these factors overlap.

“The overall picture when we are looking at intention to pay for online news is that we have to consider as many as five predictors,” Chyi told me. “I think that sort of explains why most newspapers have found it’s so difficult to monetize their online content.” From the study:

Specifically, age is a key factor influencing every aspect of online news consumption. Gender, in comparison, only affects paying intent. Paying intent for online news is influenced by five factors (age, gender, news interest, preference, and online news use), with age and news interest being the strongest predictors.

The study was presented Saturday at the International Symposium on Online Journalism. Chyi’s study was based on an online survey of 767 adult respondents in August 2010. While that seems like a really long time ago in Internet years — the first iPad was only five months old — Chyi says her research is current enough to offer a useful picture of a longer-term shift she’s tracked for more than a decade. Though print is declining by just about every metric, Chyi is convinced that there is an “over-optimistic bias toward online news.” At the same time, she acknowledges it’s “very late and very difficult to change the perception that the future is online or online-only.”

It’s not that she’s anti-technology, she says: “I believe that new platforms will be really important for people to access news, but in terms of how to monetize it, I think it’s getting more and more difficult,” says Chyi, who also sees a conflation between print decline and online growth. “Very often we mix the two together and say, ‘Because print is declining, the future must be online.’ But I don’t think that’s the case.”

Whatever the case may be, the theoretical model her study produced might offer the beginnings of a structural map for those who need to find a way to convince audiences that their news products are worth paying for.

POSTED     April 23, 2012, 2:23 p.m.
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