November 11, 2016

Is Google hurting quality online journalism?

Aggregators give newspapers incentives to produce good stories, but there are trade-offs

Illustration by Gian Romagnoli, Images from Bigstock

Newspapers are in a war for readers’ attention online and aggregators like Google News are among their chief rivals, but the competition doesn’t have to lead to a race to the bottom on quality.

A paper in the November issue of American Economic Journal: Microeconomics says that aggregators do not give publishers incentives to produce cheap “clickbait” and may even boost attention for rigorously reported and well-written articles online.

Questions remain about the threats aggregators pose to newspapers’ financial model, but this latest research suggests that newspapers don’t have to dumb down coverage to get noticed online.

“Even if aggregators steal the traffic to home pages of newspapers, they may send more traffic to individual articles of high quality,” Doh-Shin Jeon, an economics professor at the Toulouse School of Economics, said in an e-mail to the AEA. “Which effect between the two dominates is an empirical question but the existing empirical studies show that the latter dominates the former.”

In “News Aggregators and Competition Among Newspapers on the Internet,” Jeon and co-author Nikrooz Nasr say the heightened competition posed by aggregators gives newspapers an incentive to narrow coverage to a handful of issues that they cover well rather than try to trick readers -- and the aggregators’ algorithms -- into giving preference to shallow, cheaply produced articles.

Aggregators collect news stories from a variety of media sources and organize them on a home page. They have gained widespread use among consumers who are overwhelmed by the glut of information online.

Even if aggregators steal the traffic to home pages of newspapers, they may send more traffic to individual articles of high quality.

Doh-Shin Jeon

Aggregators play an important role in determining which stories get read on the Internet, with more than than half of Americans saying that is how they find their news, according to the Reuters Institute. Publishers have accused aggregators of profiting from content for which they have not paid even as they compete for the same advertising dollars, making it more difficult for newspapers to invest in high-quality journalism.

The authors based their research on a hypothetical aggregator similar to Google News, which produces no original articles of its own.

Google News lists the headlines and the first few sentences of an article, giving readers a bit more information when judging the quality of an article before they click.

According to the study, that type of aggregator tended to drive more traffic to the highest quality articles, rewarding newspapers by expanding their audience.

The study comes at a time of crisis in the news industry as publications transition to a digital model.

Traditional news organizations have struggled to adjust to plummeting revenue as print advertising declines and competition for online ads gets more intense.

If only they could print money
Advertising revenue for U.S. newspapers has plummeted as competition from online media grows. Digital advertising revenue is growing, but not enough to offset losses in print.
Source: adapted from Newspaper Association of America

Digital ad revenue for newspapers has been growing but not nearly enough to replace the drop in print.

This has led to concerns about whether news organizations will offer cheaply produced online clickbait in order to generate revenue instead of invest in rigorously reported journalism.

Jeon thinks those concerns are valid. But it would be the case even without aggregators.

“Clickbaits also apply to newspaper home pages or even to the print media,” Jeon asserts. “It’s a common practice to grab readers’ attention with some ‘interesting’ title or image.”

To be sure, there are negative impacts on newspapers.

Aggregators might expand the readership for some articles, but they also reduce traffic to newspapers' home pages.

“News Aggregators and Competition Among Newspapers on the Internet,” appears in the November issue of American Economic Journal: Microeconomics.