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Does it pay off for multi-source news platforms to host public affairs content?
In the media economy where user attention is commodified, news portals strive to increase audience’s engagement with their services, measured as both click rate and time spent browsing. Newsfeed interface architecture, including information cues that it presents, is one of the primary tools of capturing and retaining audience attention. Previous work showed that interface cues that hint to others’ reactions to content, such as number of views, clicks, upvotes, or recommendations next to individual news items, exert powerful effects on such outcomes as story selection and engagement with the news portal as a whole.
However, research largely overlooked two important considerations with regard to such “bandwagon” cues. One is that these cues may convey different information about news items. The fact that a certain story has been clicked on ten thousand times tells a user something different than the fact that it has been marked as important by ten thousand people. Another meaningful nuance is that users differ in self-efficacy, motivation to browse news, and beliefs about the media and information in general, which can lead to same cues having different effects on different users. Will readers engage with the news platform less if it prominently features socially important content, as opposed to "interesting"? And if such difference exists, is it uniform across users with different preexisting attitudes?
Using a purpose-built news portal populated with real, timely news stories, this study aims to address these questions by experimentally manipulating the type of a “bandwagon” sidebar cue such that it is designed to trigger either an “interest” or an "importance” heuristic. To account for potential differences in users’ cognitive processing of the news, two constructs that have been previously shown to be relevant to political information-seeking and opinion formation, epistemic political efficacy and gatekeeping trust, are introduced to the analysis. The outcome of interest is engagement with the news portal, measured over twelve days of continuous usage. The final sample is 1200 Amazon MTurkers.
Preliminary analysis yielded no main effect for the sidebar cue type on engagement with the portal. However, both epistemic political efficacy (EPE) and gatekeeping trust appear to moderate this effect, such that respondents with higher levels EPE and lower levels of gatekeeping trust score significantly higher on all measures of engagement if the portal sidebar highlights socially important content, whereas low-EPE and high-gatekeeping trust users scroll and click more if it is "interesting" content that is highlighted. These findings offer insights for designers of news platforms who wish to elicit interest to public affairs news in different audiences.