Readers still turn to legacy media for credible news online
A study of reddit users’ posts about the Toronto mayoral election shows a preference for old, mainstream news outlets over online and alternative media.
By Kyle Brown
With more than 50,000 subscribers on one of the world’s biggest websites, the Toronto subreddit is an important space for breaking news and thoughtful debate about the city. During the recent mayoral election, four candidates took to the website to hold informal impromptu Q&As, including Olivia Chow, the only front-running candidate to participate.
The site’s importance in shaping opinions and broadening discussion cannot be understated. But in an online community of that size, who drives the conversation? With the election in full swing, I undertook a study to determine which news sources had the best penetration into the local subreddit.
The set up
From the day after nominations closed to the day of the election, 299 links to news sites were posted that included the words “mayor,” “mayoral,” “election” or the names of any of the 67 candidates. This only included direct links to news sites, not self-posts or links to sites like polling firms or candidate websites.
Thirty-five different news sources contributed to the 299 links, spanning three broad categories: print, broadcast and online-only. Sources under the print category included both the off- and online presence of print-based newspapers and magazines.
The big players
Print outlets took four of the top five spots in terms of frequency of posts.
This reliance of reddit users on print sources may come down to perceptions of trust. As a Pew Research study from last month revealed, traditional news sources far outweigh their online-only counterparts in both awareness and trust. In that American study, the Huffington Post had fewer than 20 per cent of respondents seeing it as trustworthy, while sites like Slate and Buzzfeed had below five per cent.
Looking at the Toronto subreddit, these attitudes may be true north of the border, as well.
It’s no shock that one of the major dailies was the most featured news source, but the extent of the Star’s prevalence is surprising. Of the 202 print sources linked to, 46 per cent led to the Star’s website.
More than just dominating the frequency of links, the Star also performed well in terms of quality. reddit operates on a voting system, where registered users are able to vote a link up or down, and posts with higher scores rise to the top of the page. Points (known as “Link Karma” among users) are to be distributed based on the quality of the article, though some other factors may skew the data, such as the tone or subject of the piece or issues around site etiquette, such as editorializing the title.
Still, the points give a mostly accurate reflection of how users perceive the quality of content. In this regard, the Star came second among print sources, with an average score of 40.8 points per post.
The only outlet with a higher score was Now Toronto, with 52.5 points on average over 15 posts. The Sun (36.6 points per post) also fell above the average among print sources (35.5), while the Post (30.1), the Globe (24.4) and Metro (22.3) all fell below.
Broadcasters finish in second place
With a fourth-place finish overall, the CBC handily beat out all other broadcast outlets in frequency. The only others who broke into double digits were CP24 and Global News, while City, CTV, TVO and radio stations CFMJ (Talk Radio AM 640) and CFTR (680 News) all finished with surprisingly few links.
Though the CBC was the most linked to among broadcast outlets, it was not the leader in points—neither in total points or points per post. Only two broadcasters finished above the points-per-post average: CP24, which had the highest overall with an average of 59.1, and Global (46). The CBC finished with only 22.4 points per post.
Online-only sources falter
Despite the range of hyperlocal blogs and e-zines devoted to Toronto news, online-only sources failed to feature prominently on the subreddit. BlogTO, Inside Toronto and Toronto Standard each had just three links or fewer, while Torontoist rose to the top in this category with nine links. News sites owned by major media companies, like Quebecor’s Canoe.ca and Postmedia’s Canada.com, also failed to break through.
Due to the smaller sample size, the results of points per post are less definitive. The two leading online sources, Torontoist and Spacing, each had more than 40 points per post, showing that online sources were well received.
Credibility is still king
So, what does all of this mean? I can’t help but think back to a conference I attended earlier this year. A speaker presented an anecdote about a wonderful profile he’d read in the New York Times’ Sunday edition, and how pleased he was that his daughter had also read it—only to find out she’d done so on reddit. The point? Social media users don’t actually concern themselves with the source of the story.
As these results show, that assertion is a difficult one to make. Even on reddit, which states in its rules that users should not vote based on their personal opinions of a source, users rely on traditional, established media to share news and analysis.
When the top five news sources are the country’s major dailies plus the CBC and non-traditional outlets don’t factor in at all, it’s hard to argue with Pew’s findings that legacy outlets still reign supreme and have not dropped off in terms of importance or popularity when it comes to credibility online.
Kyle Brown is a freelance writer and blogger who writes about the intersection of news, media and social media in the digital age. He holds an MA in Communication and New Media from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.