Researcher: Reading News at Work Lowers Inclination to Pay

There was a time when folks leisurely read their news over breakfast. Alas, Northwestern University researcher Pablo Boczkowski has found that now people are reading most of their news on the internet at work. Their new reading habits are such that, according to Boczkowski, it is unlikely that they will pay for the news. Boczkowski provides more details in the video interview with Leonard Witt below as part of the Future of Journalism series at the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University. Watch the videos or read the transcripts from earlier interviews here. Or sign up on the home page for alerts when future interviews are posted.

Leonard Witt: I’m Len Witt and I’m at Yale University. There is a conference going on about the new ecology of journalism, who will pay for the news. I’m going to introduce somebody who’s done some really interesting research. Where do you think, before we get started, where do you think most people are spending their time on the internet and what time of day? So Pablo why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us about the work you do?

Pablo Boczkowski: My name is Pablo Boczkowski, and I’m an associate professor in the Department of Communications Studies at Northwestern University. The research you were referring to is a study that I’ve been doing, actually I completed it recently, called News at work: imitation in an age of information around us, which is also the title of the book that is coming from the University of Chicago Press in June- July of next year.

We found in the study that a significant proportion of only news consumers access only news at the time and place of work, whether that is an office environment or in their home office, and that has interesting implications for the ways in which they access the news, the kind of content they access, how they access, how much time they spend, and the conversations they have with other people, etc. And it also has important implications for how the news gets produced, and for journalists, and other news producers, in order to try to target this new time and this new place of news consumption. Because for the most part the consumption of news before the advent of the internet as sort of a massive new source of news and information, took place outside of the place of work, like in the morning reading the newspaper, or in the evening watching the television newscast.

Witt: So one of the things you said was, when you were talking about this new environment that people look at the news, they spend I think you said, they usually just look at one page at a time, correct?

Boczkowski: So what they do is most people engage in two different forms of only news consumption during the work hours. What I call the first visit of the day, which is sort of systematic, comprehensive. It is the first time that you sit at a computer, usually happens either immediately before you start your work day or during the lunch break, and it’s mostly focused on the homepages – a systematic look at one or two homepages, your preferred sites, your trusted news sources during a normal day. If there is any major news that has happened, people tend to look at other sources as well, but that’s sort of the first visit of the day. It is devoted to the homepage and then people click on a handful of headlines that catch their attention, and they tend to read not the entire story , basically they look at the first paragraph and they skim the rest. So that is what I call the first visit of the day.

Then people go back to these sites usually more then one time during the rest of the day in what I call the subsequent visits, which are much shorter in duration. Usually in a matter of seconds they want to see an update in a particular story that they were interested in or somebody in the office environment, or a friend, or family member alerts them to the existence of a particular event that might be appealing: there is an earthquake here or there is a major traffic congestion in the route that you usually take to go back home. So people look at the news for a matter of seconds, they get all the information that they need and they leave the sites. People tend to engage in these subsequent visits usually more than once a day and it’s also a way to kill time, fill time, procrastinate in the work place.

Witt: Ok, so what was the implication of that about whether or not they will pay for online news? I think you mentioned that.

Boczkowski: My sense is that given most people are looking at home pages and headlines, they click and they read the lead and the first paragraph , and then a little bit of the rest, I think most of that content is commodity content. It’s content that you can find in many sources. You just happen to go to the site that you trust the most or the site that routinely you have gone to. So what that means is that I don’t think that for this mode of consumption there is a strong argument for the proposition that people will pay for the news. Because as long as someone is providing the same commodity content for free, people will migrate to those sites rather than pay, even if the site implementing a paywall is your favorite site, people will go elsewhere.

One of my favorite examples is I teach a class for Northwestern in the sociology of online news, an undergraduate seminar. About three or four years ago, I can’t remember, the semester or quarter started in the Fall. The New York Times was about to implement the monetization of some of their content. Most noticeable, the editorials and opinion pages. And so I asked the students: How many of your read that source online? And about a quarter of the class looked at the New York Times on a routine basis. I asked again after the paywall was implemented, and it had dropped to zero, because people were finding ways of getting the same information in blogs that had repurposed that content.

So I think, despite the positive implications that this could have for the economic sustainability of things, this being the implementation of pay models, I am highly skeptical that they would work for general interest sites. They can work for financial news because people make money out of getting that information. They could work for specialty niche content. But I doubt that they would work, these pay strategies, for generalist sites.

Witt: So what’s going to pay for journalism?


Boczkowski:
What’s going to pay for journalism? Advertisement and other sources of revenue. Most likely the industry will continue shrinking in terms of the size of the labor market, and probably even the pay structure, compensation structure will probably deflate a little bit. And some of the big players will get bigger. I do think the wire services have tremendous growth opportunity at the moment, and that’s why you see all the movement in the wire services sector. CNN tried to monetize its internal wire offering for the public. The merger of Thompson-Reuters, etc. Because these organizations have enough resources, enough scale, to provide a wide variety of news items that can be quickly scanned by people in the workplace.

Witt: So somebody asked, I think the moderator during your panel said what about day laborers or people who are not sitting in front of a computer all day? Where are they getting their information from, and is that going to create a sort of information divide?

Boczkowski: Right. That’s a very good question. So, people are still getting information from print, they’re still getting information from radio, they’re still getting information from television. There is a transfer or migration of the audience online. There is no doubt about it at this point. But that doesn’t mean the previously dominant alternatives have ceased to exist or will cease to exist in the future. As a matter of fact, as I mentioned at the panel, for the population which is in the lower income strata, especially in Third World countries or underdeveloped countries where this population is very important numerically in society – for these people the media that caters to them is doing much better than the media that caters to other segments of the population. Newspapers, television, there’s such a segment of their products depending on the market. And there is evidence that for these people they’re still getting information in traditional ways.

The merchants are trying to reach them because they have income they want to spend. And traditional media makes a very important contribution to society, the well being of society, by providing information to people who cannot access other media. So though these people can access, even if they don’t work in a job where they have a computer, and don’t have a computer at home, there are still public places, say libraries, cyber cafes, call centers where they can get access to the news online.

Witt: So, when it comes to high quality, ethically sound journalism that’ll help provide – sustain our democracy and make the public square vibrant, are you optimistic, pessimistic?

Boczkowski: Realistic.

Witt: What does that mean?

Boczkowski: There will be some of it for a long time. I think the size of it, and the proportion of what they contribute will shrink, has already shrunk, and probably will continue shrinking. But there are things emerging and the interesting things to pay attention to is where the new developments that are emerging and actually replacing are actually expanding and taking us in a completely different direction. So in that sense the future is open. But as far as the traditional players and incumbents, I think they will see a significant reduction in size, resources, and important – far more than what has happened now. Far more.

Witt: Alright. Thank you very much.

Boczkowski: You’re very welcome.

One Response to Researcher: Reading News at Work Lowers Inclination to Pay
  1. [...] « My sense is that given most people are looking at home pages and headlines, they click and they read the lead and the first paragraph , and then a little bit of the rest, I think most of that content is commodity content. It’s content that you can find in many sources. You just happen to go to the site that you trust the most or the site that routinely you have gone to. So what that means is that I don’t think that for this mode of consumption there is a strong argument for the proposition that people will pay for the news. Because as long as someone is providing the same commodity content for free, people will migrate to those sites rather than pay, even if the site implementing a paywall is your favorite site, people will go elsewhere. [...]So I think, despite the positive implications that this could have for the economic sustainability of things, this being the implementation of pay models, I am highly skeptical that they would work for general interest sites. They can work for financial news because people make money out of getting that information. They could work for specialty niche content. But I doubt that they would work, these pay strategies, for generalist sites. [...] What’s going to pay for journalism? Advertisement and other sources of revenue. Most likely the industry will continue shrinking in terms of the size of the labor market, and probably even the pay structure, compensation structure will probably deflate a little bit. And some of the big players will get bigger. I do think the wire services have tremendous growth opportunity at the moment, and that’s why you see all the movement in the wire services sector. CNN tried to monetize its internal wire offering for the public. The merger of Thompson-Reuters, etc. Because these organizations have enough resources, enough scale, to provide a wide variety of news items that can be quickly scanned by people in the workplace. » (Source : Sustainable Journalism) [...]

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