Questions with Michael Zeng


Spotlight on Research

How Can Newspapers
Spur User-Generated Content

Questions with Michael Zeng

Michael Zeng, Helmut-Schmidt University

One of a regular series of articles that highlights research in the academy and the profession on the emerging threat of news deserts or changes in media ownership.

What drives readers to contribute to breaking stories? How do media companies balance unpaid user content with professional reporting? Michael Zeng, a German doctoral candidate, explores how newspapers can harness a growing consumer demand to participate in the news cycle.

Drawing on surveys of more than 2,000 German university students, Zeng probes for when and why users contribute to news sites and when readers prefer professional content over user-generated material. Zeng focuses on Germans aged 16-35 because they represent “digital natives,” growing up with with digital technologies and new portals.

Zeng finds that young Germans rate user-generated content increasingly positively and want to interact with others, not just on special-interest topics, but also on news. Zeng assesses users are most likely to contribute when they feel a sense of expertise about a topic or experience, are concerned about others’ welfare and have a sense of acceptance in the community. Understanding these conditions and triggers, Zeng argues, might help media companies update their value proposition to attract and retain tomorrow’s readers.

Zeng is a doctoral candidate in Hamburg, Germany, at the Helmut-Schmidt University. He holds a master’s degree in Management and Technology from the Technical University of Munich, where he received an award for the best master’s thesis.

Results of the study can be found by clicking here.

What is some of the major research that preceded and contributed to your report?

Several research streams influenced my decision to focus on how user-generated content affects publishers’ business models. The biggest challenge has been combining all of this research into only one paper. We leaned heavily on:

  • User-innovation research, which stems from Eric von Hippel’s 1986 argument that “lead users” are people who create solutions to problems which cannot be solved by the market.
  • Business model innovation, which is even more relevant for companies because of shrinking product life cycles.
  • Journalism research, which we used to determine how readers evaluate content.

Combining these three research streams pointed us to two central research questions: (1) What are users’ expectations towards sources of content? (2) What are the main drivers for users to contribute their own content? By answering these questions, we addressed how publishers can develop key resources and processes to appeal to users seeking interaction with others and a role in the value-creation process.

What did you learn?

Today’s world is characterized by huge shifts in the way products are consumed. This trend poses a threat to many long-established companies but also offers opportunities for businesses. I am especially impressed with new business models such as car-sharing apps Uber in the USA or car2go and DriveNow in Germany. These new business models suggest the future is about sharing services and products and finding community-oriented solutions.

What are some of the major implications of your research? What are you focusing on next?

Our findings show that both user-generated content and professional journalism are valuable to users. We assess that users contribute because they want to share their expertise, feel a sense of welfare toward others and seek personal acceptance in the community. We show how online communities can help drive business-model innovations and offer value to newspapers and magazines.

I am focusing my future research on open-foresight processes, which means trying to detect change early and stay ahead of the market. I want to find out how to efficiently include online communities in companies’ foresight processes.