Student Spotlight with Alex T. Williams

DREAM TEAM: Alex T. Williams, from Arlington, Texas, is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Annenberg School for Communication. He studied sociology as an undergrad at the University of North Texas and says he was eager to attend Annenberg because of its “amazing reputation” and his desire to work with “extremely well-respected” faculty such as Dean Michael X. Delli Carpini, Victor Pickard, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

PROFESSOR X: Williams began meeting with Delli Carpini every week during the summer before he started classes at Penn. “I was interested in his expertise on political communication and survey research,” he says. He is currently working on a media project with Delli Carpini, serving as a teaching assistant for Jamieson, and has served as a research assistant for Pickard.

SUBSCRIBE OR LOG IN: In 2013, Williams and Pickard collaborated on a research paper examining three prominent newspaper paywall models. Published in the journal Digital Journalism, their study suggests that paywalls are unable to offset steep losses in newspaper advertising revenue.

NEWS FOR FREE: Williams, whose research is supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, says he has mixed feeling about paywalls. “On one hand, I do love the idea of information being free on the internet,” he says. “On the other hand, I understand that news organizations are really struggling to adapt to losses in advertising revenue so they’re trying to boost subscription revenue.”

THINK TANK: Over the summer, Williams was a Google Journalism Fellow at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. “I loved it,” he says. “I got the chance to collaborate with people who are trained in several different fields. By collaborating with them, we were able to address methodological weaknesses and challenge one another to really attack problems from different angles.”

MONEY TALKS: One of his reports for Pew studied the number of journalists versus the number of public relations specialists and the growing pay gap between the two fields. He found that PR specialists outnumber journalists by nearly five to one and earn nearly $20,000 more. “Journalists’ salaries have not kept pace with inflation so the pay gap between them is widening,” Williams says. “It’s very clear that public relations is a more lucrative field, both in terms of starting salary and median salary.”

DATA DRIVEN: Williams has not yet decided on his dissertation or post-Ph.D. plans, but he says he would love to teach. He is currently most interested in leading empirical research analyzing how the news industry is experimenting with new business models. “I enjoy conducting research because it allows me to attack problems from different perspectives, and to try to connect facets of the debate that have gone understudied,” he says. “I try to do interdisciplinary research that allows me to synthesize different theoretical approaches.”

Alex T. Williams