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Iris Chyi challenges common assumptions on the future of print journalism BY L AURA BY E R L EY

Media Maverick


Fit to Print In Chyi’s 2011 study “Are ‘Digital Natives’ Dropping Print Newspapers?”


percent of college newspaper advisers said college students preferred print to online newspapers.


or as long as she can remember, Iris Chyi has been a maverick. As a 5-year-old in Taichung, Taiwan, Chyi did not read children’s publications. Instead, to the amazement of her neighbors, Chyi read every word in The China Times – one of two major private newspapers she could access in Chinese Nationalist-controlled 1970s Taiwan. “It was the most important information source, and everyone took it as the primary way to know what was going on in the world,” Chyi says. In the late 1980s, as the Taiwanese government started relaxing restrictions on the press, Chyi watched in fascination as stories became more interesting and additional publications appeared. Today, as a media economist and assistant professor in the School of Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin, Chyi is well-known for her nonconformist views. Her research challenges conventional wisdom on the newspaper industry and the future of print media. “Professor Chyi was the first to show the lack of planning, the lack of forethought and the wrong assumptions of newspaper people when they started going to Web,” says George Sylvie, associate professor in the School of Journalism. He met Chyi in 1996, when she was pursuing her Ph.D. in the College of Communication. “She’s also a genuinely nice person, very respectful and very curious – all essential ingredients of a first-class scholar,” Sylvie says. “She’s widely respected and highly thought of by her peers.”



One of her most controversial theories, understandably unpalatable to Web journalists, is the “Ramen Noodles Theory.” Analyzing survey data collected by the Pew Research Center, Chyi found that as a person’s income increases, his or her consumption of online news decreases. Because a negative relationship exists between income and demand for online news, it is deemed an inferior good. In other words, because they are more often preferred by the affluent, steak meals and print newspapers are economically normal goods. Ramen Noodles and online news, abundantly available at lower prices or for free, are perceived as inferior alternatives. “It’s a new perspective and it sounds awful, but it’s difficult to monetize online news, because it’s an inferior good,” Chyi says. Her research finding challenges Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen’s theory of disruptive technology. Coined in 1995, the disruptive technology theory suggests that products based on emerging technologies will eventually displace market leaders. For example, digital textbooks and free e-greeting cards would start competing with offline counterparts, eventually dismantling them. Since then, newspaper publishers have been convinced to de-emphasize their print editions and allocate additional resources to digital operations. However, in a national Web-based survey of 767 U.S. online users in August of 2010, Chyi found an overwhelming preference for traditional media formats. Presenting her research at the

10th World Media Economics & Management Conference in Thessaloniki, Greece in May of 2012, Chyi showed that given the same price and content, 70 percent of respondents prefer print newspapers to online editions. She also found that 78 percent prefer print magazines to online editions; 84 percent prefer DVDs to online videos; 66 percent prefer CDs to MP3s; and 80 percent prefer the print edition of books to e-books. Although preferences for traditional media decreased among younger respondents – those between the ages of 18 and 34 – Chyi found that most of the younger respondents preferred traditional media. Among the younger respondents, 55 percent preferred print newspapers, 68 percent preferred print magazines, 77 percent preferred movies in DVD format and 70 percent preferred print books. Music was the only exception, with 37 percent preferring music in CD format instead of MP3. With age as a predictor, Chyi created


Fresh Thoughts - Fall 2012  

Research Magazine for the College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin

Fresh Thoughts - Fall 2012  

Research Magazine for the College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin