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June 20, 2023, 9 a.m.

Why news subscriptions feel like a burden to young people

Plus: Journalists’ perception of their own news orgs’ bias, what “impartial” actually means to audiences, and when the public might intervene in journalist harassment.

Editor’s note: Longtime Nieman Lab readers know the bylines of Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis. Mark wrote the weekly This Week in Review column for us from 2010 to 2014; Seth’s written for us off and on since 2010. Together they’ve launched a monthly newsletter on recent academic research around journalism. It’s called RQ1 and we’re happy to bring each issue to you here at Nieman Lab.

Exploring the experience of paying for online news

With the ongoing shift from free news sites to ones that require subscription for access, researchers have raised questions about the downstream effects on news knowledge — on basic understanding of key facts about public affairs. In a world of paywalls, as one study asked, “how can journalism provide quality news for everyone?”

Put another way: as more and more people “bounce off” paywalls, reading less and less local news especially, what happens to overall public understanding and citizen know-how? This question seems particularly pertinent for young people who are presumed to have less interest in news and less willingness to pay for it — and thus less likely to develop news-subscribing habits that will follow them (and their dependents) over time.

While previous studies have looked at many aspects of people’s willingness to pay, they haven’t drilled down on the qualitative experience of subscription-based news, especially for young adult non-subscribing news users. Marianne Borchgrevink-Brækhus and Hallvard Moe, both representing MediaFutures in the Department of Information Science and Media Studies at Norway’s University of Bergen, attempt to do just that in their new paper in Journalism Studies, “The burden of subscribing: How young people experience digital news subscriptions.”

The researchers recruited 15 participants (nine of whom had never paid for or subscribed to online news), all between the ages of 26-30. That may sound like a small number of research participants, but when qualitative and overlapping methods are involved — as they were in this case — then sufficient “data saturation,” or the point at which responses and themes become redundant, can be achieved even with a relatively small set of respondents.

The research was conducted in Norway, which, the article argues, “makes an interesting case context for studying experiences with paid content, as it is considered the world’s most mature market for subscription-based online news.” So, if younger adults are turned off by subscriptions in Norway, we can presume they would be even more so elsewhere. In this study, the researchers deployed a package of three methods: interviews (two rounds), media diaries (where participants journaled about their experiences with news), and a test subscription period of one month (for a Norwegian online newspaper of their choice).

The researchers were not just concerned about people’s willingness to pay for news, as has been common in previous studies. On the contrary, they focused just as much on people’s “life situations and the role of media in their everyday life,” mapping “news and media habits, interests, and preferred news sources,” all in conversation with feelings about media subscriptions in general and how people move between free and paid content in the day-to-day.

The researchers found that study participants’ experiences with subscription-based news needed to be contextualized in three ways:

First, interviews and media diaries showed that people actively looked for news on a regular basis (from a couple of times per week to several times per day), and that over time they had gravitated to free options (such as podcasts, TV, radio, and free national news sites) as more online news organizations began charging for content.

Second, many participants talked about regularly checking sites that had subscriptions (from their local newspaper to The New York Times), and that even if they lacked access because they didn’t pay for it, they had workaround strategies: e.g., borrowing a login, reading social media comments to get the gist of an article, or relying on family and friends. Key here is that “such strategies were mobilized for specific stories or issues, not as a general habit.” But still: that people would go to such lengths to get access to a paywalled story of interest suggests that, “far from being ‘avoiders,’ non-subscribers can be both willing and interested in orienting themselves toward the public through news.”

The third contextual point is that the researchers did not find any connection between people not paying for news and an overall opposition toward the idea of paywalls for news. “On the contrary, informants expressed awareness of declining advertising revenues and decreasing print readership, and recognized news providers’ need to charge for content.” That said, study participants were frustrated that certain types of news — particularly news they saw as vital for everyone to see, such as stories about Covid-19, accidents, or elections — were not freely accessible for non-subscribers.

So, against that contextual backdrop, researchers discovered three key types experiences with subscription news that helped explain why these individuals did not pay.

The first experience was lack of exclusivity, including the feeling that similar content could be found elsewhere for free. But this dimension also included a curious twist: “news content should not appear too exclusive, in the sense of narrow. Stories only covered on one news site, typically in a local or regional one, were valued as less important or even unnecessary by the informants: they felt less obligated to read about it and refrained from paying.” Interestingly, too, “after their subscription period ended, many struggled to distinguish between what kind of content required payment or not.” That’s not a great sign for the distinctiveness of paid-for news content.

The second experience: subscriptions are too time-consuming. In this case, rather than seeing their one-month test subscription as a replacement for their previous workarounds for accessing paywalled content, many of the study participants used the subscription primarily as an add-on to existing news habits — thus making the experience of keeping up with their subscriptions feel like “a draining chore.”

The third type of experience was unattractive pay models, which is perhaps no surprise to anyone who has experienced the frustration of trying to start and stop online news subscriptions. Just as the study participants felt “tied down” by the subscriptions in terms of time, they also felt too tightly bound to them financially as well — and described this reluctance to commit to a single news source in the wider context of subscription fatigue of so many choices and requirements across sites: of needing to manage too many registrations, logins, passwords, etc.

Indeed, as the authors note in their conclusion: “An overall observation based on our analysis is that these young non-subscribers expressed a strong preference for ‘multi-perspectivism’ in their news use. They included a myriad of both national and international sources, they were tech-savvy and knew how to maneuver around payment models in search of information, and were pragmatic but not naïve when searching for accessible information. A key overarching preference was the freedom of not being tied to a subscription. As such, it seemed unthinkable to ‘commit’ to one or two providers. Subscriptions were rather experienced as supplementary and restrictive burdens to their already existing news repertoires.”

So, does the increase in paywalls suggest that people are becoming less informed? While it’s far beyond the scope of this single paper to answer that big question, this Norwegian study would suggest that non-subscribers can develop strategic workarounds to keep up with the news — and that the experience of subscriptions can be a burdensome turn-off in its own right, for reasons that deserve further study.

Research roundup

“Not all parties are treated equally: Journalist perceptions of partisan news bias.” By Karolin Soontjens, Kathleen Beckers, Stefaan Walgrave, Emma van der Goot, and Toni G.L.A. van der Meer, in Journalism Studies. We’ll start the roundup with a couple of studies on perception of bias in news — one on journalists’ views, and one on audiences’. Journalists all, of course, have some opinion of the degree of partisanship and fairness of a wide variety of news organizations, including their own. Yet no study (as far as we know) had systematically looked at journalists’ perceptions of bias within their own news organizations.

It’s a simple but fascinating set of questions: Do journalists think their own outlets have a partisan bias? And if so, what kind and how much? And how do those opinions relate to journalists’ own political orientations? A team of researchers surveyed about 300 Belgian and Dutch journalists to ask them about how often they believe their organization’s coverage advantages or disadvantages each of their country’s major political parties.

About a quarter of journalists saw no partisan bias in their news organization’s coverage, but the rest saw at least some advantage or disadvantage for parties, which the authors described as notable for countries where neutrality and impartiality are a dominant norm. Most saw a small amount of bias, with about 15% perceiving strong bias. Not surprisingly, journalists at commercial news organizations perceived more bias than those in public media.

Overall, the bias journalists perceived could be characterized as relatively centrist: Far-right and far-left parties were perceived as most disadvantaged (right more than left), with center-right perceived as most advantaged. (This overall pattern was complicated a bit, though, when you zoomed into each particular region’s parties.) The study found no link between journalists’ self-reported political orientation and their perception of bias toward opposing views (i.e., no hostile media effect), though it did find that journalists’ perceptions of bias matched their perceptions of their audience’s political orientation. The upshot: In general, journalists believed their organizations were indeed biased — toward centrists, and in the same general direction as their audiences.

“‘Fair and balanced’: What news audiences in four countries mean when they say they prefer impartial news.” By Camila Mont’Alverne, Sumitra Badrinathan, Amy Ross Arguedas, Benjamin Toff, Richard Fletcher, and Rasmus Nielsen, in Journalism Studies. When people are asked why they don’t trust news sources, one of the main reasons they cite is bias. And when they’re asked what they want from journalism, one of the main things they call for is impartiality. (Then, of course, they tend to indicate by their news consumption choices that they don’t actually prefer impartiality in practice.)

So what do people actually mean when they say they want news to be “impartial” or “unbiased”? A team of researchers from Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism used interviews and focus groups of 132 news consumers in four countries (Brazil, India, the U.K., and the U.S.) to find out. They found that many people have a pretty straightforward definition of impartiality in the abstract — “news that does not take a side but is fair, balanced, and factually accurate,” as the authors put it.

But the ideas about what that looks like in practice were quite divergent — some wanted a “just the facts” approach that stripped out virtually all opinion and perspective, while others wanted to see a broader range of perspectives than what’s currently represented. Most of all, their opinions about whether and how it was possible to achieve impartial news derived from two impressionistic “folk theories” about journalism, the authors argued.

The first was predictable enough: Many participants (especially those with strong partisan identity) believed journalists lacked impartiality because they were seeking to advance their own political agendas, a perception in line with what the hostile media effect has conceptualized for decades. The second folk theory was that journalists lacked impartiality because they seek to manipulate the public for commercial gain. This theory was prevalent among respondents from across the ideological spectrum, and even those who had a high degree of trust in news media.

So, while audiences’ definitions of impartiality were similar to many journalists’ aims in principle, their perceptions of journalism in practice were dramatically different than how journalists might see themselves. The prominence of those theories in people’s understanding of impartiality, the authors concluded, indicated “how important perceptions about the intentions underlying how news is made can be to structuring how people think about the content itself.”

“Metrics in action: How social media metrics shape news production on Facebook.” By Subhayan Mukerjee, Tian Yang, and Yilang Peng, in Journal of Communication. It’s become a truism (perhaps related to one of the folk theories in the previous study!) that social media likes and shares play an important role in determining what news organizations cover and how. One of our articles is blowing up on Twitter or Instagram? Quick, write a follow-up to ride that traffic and engagement wave a little longer!

Some recent qualitative work on metrics in journalism has tempered that assumption a bit, noting that journalists often interpret metrics in a way that seeks to preserve their autonomy to decide what to cover. Still, if social media engagement metrics do play at least some role in coverage decisions, that should bear out in a large-scale comparison of social media metrics and future publication decisions.

That’s what Mukerjee and colleagues sought to determine in a massive study of every Facebook post made over five years by 29 U.S. news organizations (2.23 million posts). They compared the amount of engagement from posts (comments, shares, and likes and other reactions) with the frequency with which the topic was posted by that news organization over the next two weeks.

They did find that higher Facebook engagement did lead to more posting on that topic overall, at least over the next few days. But the effect was largely driven by one part of the sample in particular: Right-wing outlets (especially Breitbart, the Washington Examiner, and Sean Hannity) on news topics related to partisan politics (as opposed to entertainment or other stories). Mainstream and left-wing outlets were relatively muted in their reaction to heavy Facebook engagement, but those right-wing outlets were significant more likely to respond to heavy engagement with more coverage — but only on stories about partisan political topics.

The authors noted that these findings correspond to other studies indicating the partisan asymmetry of the American news ecosystem. In this case, they said, “the interplay between selective exposure to partisan news and the right-wing outlets’ responsiveness to audience metrics of partisan news content may exacerbate each other, engendering a hyper-partisan information ecosystem for Republicans.”

“What makes for robust local news provision? Structural correlates of local news coverage for an entire U.S. state, and mapping local news using a new method.” By Sarah Stonbely, in Journalism and Media. The rise of “news deserts” — areas with minimal local news coverage — has attracted quite a bit of media attention and some excellent research over the last several years, particularly in the U.S., where local news is a crucial part of the country’s news environment. But measuring what precisely constitutes a news desert is a complex and difficult task.

Many previous studies have defined news coverage based on where news organizations are based, but Stonbely wanted to get one level more precise in mapping news deserts, so she examined what areas each organization covers, according to their own self-descriptions. Mapping this, of course, is a much more time-consuming approach than simply locating various headquarters, so she narrowed her study to a single state — New Jersey — to test the method.

She found a much more vivid and detailed picture of local news coverage in the state, though one that matched many of the major patterns we’ve seen with news deserts in the past. The areas that had the highest per-capita amount of local news coverage had higher household incomes and higher per-person municipal spending. Those were attributes most commonly found in wealthy suburbs, which get coverage from both the metro areas they’re part of as well as hyperlocal community-based efforts.

The other major factor in which communities were underserved by news organizations was the percentage of the population that was Hispanic (though Stonbely noted that some ethnic media in the state couldn’t be mapped as part of the analysis). Overall, as many news organizations shift toward an audience-supported revenue model (through donations and subscriptions), Stonbely warned, this study suggests historic inequities are being perpetuated, as wealthier and whiter communities are more likely to attract coverage from community media.

“When will one help? Understanding audience intervention in online harassment of women journalists.” By Shuning Lu and Luwei Rose Luqiu, in Journalism Practice. We’re all familiar with the torrent of online harassment that many journalists have faced, heightened particularly over the past several years. A raft of recent research has addressed that harassment, focusing particularly on the disproportionate effects it has on women journalists.

Much of that research has focused on institutional means of support (or lack thereof) for journalists facing harassment, but Lu and Luqiu were interested in another potentially valuable form of support: Intervention from the audience itself. They conducted an online experiment to determine which types of circumstances might make audience members more likely to intervene against a case of online harassment of a journalist: Misogynistic versus more “professional” harassment, ideological alignment with the journalist, and the presence of others intervening.

Using a Hong Kong-based experiment setting up the fictitious harassment on Facebook of a woman journalist, Lu and Luqiu found that participants were more likely to deem overtly misogynistic harassment more serious than harassment targeted at professional qualifications, and were more likely to say they’d intervene in a variety of ways. They were also more likely to intervene if they aligned ideologically with the journalist and if they saw others who had already intervened.

The study also found that young people were significantly more likely to intervene, as well as more frequent news users. These results suggested, Lu and Luqiu argued, that rather than pulling back sharply from audience interaction as a result of harassment, perhaps news organizations should seek to deepen their connection with their youngest and heaviest-using audiences and even educate them about the pervasiveness of gendered harassment against journalists and encourage intervention.

“The epistemic injustice in conflict reporting: Reporters and ‘fixers’ covering Ukraine, Israel, and Palestine.” By Johana Kotišová, in Journalism. Foreign correspondents receive much of the credit for the invaluable journalism done from international wars and conflicts, but their work is quite often made possible only through the work of “fixers” — local workers hired to guide, organize, make contacts, translate, provide context, and all kinds of background work for foreign correspondents.

The journalist-fixer relationship has long been recognized as a fraught one, weighted with the cultural baggage of imperialism and whiteness as the (usually Western) foreigner takes credit for collaborative work with a (usually non-Western) local. Kotišová’s study is an incisive look at one particular dimension of these dynamics — the role of knowledge and emotion, or attachment.

Kotišová interviewed 36 local and foreign journalists, fixers, and others in Ukraine, Israel, and Palestine, in addition to a good deal of online and offline observation of these communities’ conversations. She found that while foreign journalists are typically seen as the cool, rational ones in the relationship and locals are seen as too emotionally attached to the story, local fixers’ emotional engagement is itself a form of knowledge.

In many cases, fixers’ deep emotional connections to the conflicts they were covering helped lead foreign journalists beyond cliches and into a more contextualized and empathetic form of journalism. These fixers are often dismissed for their emotional connection and lack of “objectivity” as they edge toward “activism.” Their emotions are indeed a form of activism, Kotišová argued in one case, but this activism “resided in the mission to tell the world what happens in a contextualized, historically, and legally informed way.”

Photo by Don Harder used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 20, 2023, 9 a.m.
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