A $100,000 grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation will fuel new research by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications that is intended to provide tools that can improve the financial viability of local journalism, while also seeking to increase Americans' sense of community and making them more informed about their democracy.
The grant, announced Nov. 12, will include both data analysis and qualitative research this year and next, conducted as part of Northwestern’s Local News Initiative, a newly launched effort to address the crisis in local journalism.
Under the supervision of Professor Owen Youngman, Medill’s Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, the research will take two paths:
- Beth Bennett, Associate Dean of Journalism, will conduct in-depth interviews of media industry figures and thought leaders to identify business and audience-focused innovations that can sustain local media. The aim: To share promising ideas with local news organizations across the nation.
- Rachel Davis Mersey, Associate Professor and Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research Fellow, and Associate Professor Stephanie Edgerly will analyze data from a breadth of communities to determine potential relationships between the vitality of local news consumption and other infrastructure variables. The aim: to identify types of media markets and innovative approaches that might work across them.
David Hiller, President and CEO of the McCormick Foundation, emphasized the grant’s importance.
“The McCormick Foundation is enthusiastic about the opportunity to continue our longstanding partnership with Medill,” Hiller said. “Ensuring residents have continued access to high-quality local news is essential to our goal of fostering a society of educated, informed, and engaged citizens. We look forward to Medill’s contributions to sustaining deep local reporting in Chicago and across the country.”
Ensuring residents have continued access to high-quality local news is essential to our goal of fostering a society of educated, informed, and engaged citizens.David Hiller, President and CEO of the McCormick Foundation
These two Medill projects will inform each other, both based on the notion that local news must move beyond one-size-fits-all solutions while recognizing that much can be gained by finding commonalities. Youngman said his team hopes to create a road map or playbook “or even a set of mathematical constructs” for what works in certain types of markets.
Bennett said a question for her research is: “What’s going on in the industry that may signal future opportunities for growth in ways that we just haven’t predicted or expected in the past?”
Among other things, Bennett will explore whether, and how, larger news organizations with outlets in a variety of markets tailor their approaches to those individual markets rather than manage all of them in the same manner.
“I’m interested in seeing if ownership groups are thinking about the unique differences among the markets and how that might affect the way that they attempt to drive revenue in those markets,” she said.
Bennett’s work will sync up with Mersey and Edgerly’s data project, which will look for “markers” of high news consumption and then find connections to other demographic and economic patterns in the same markets. Examples might include library use, college education and commute times, or issues related to the cost of, and access to, particular elements of technology infrastructure.
“Can we say, ‘In markets of 50,000 with more than one four-year institution of higher education, we see that people in this market are consuming news at a higher rate than would be indicated by looking across the landscape’?” Youngman said. “And we see that here are three things in a couple of these markets that are the same. Now, let’s look at a whole bunch of other markets. Are those valid markers? And do they lead to a particular kind of innovation or innovative practice?”
Edgerly said her team is “acknowledging that news organizations face significant challenges but not all of them face the same challenges in the same ways.”
“In the same way that we are becoming much more knowledgeable and savvy in understanding our audiences, I think that we need to also become more knowledgeable and savvy in understanding news markets and news organizations and how they differ – and where that difference really influences how we innovate and the resources we prioritize,” Edgerly said.
In the same way that we are becoming much more knowledgeable and savvy in understanding our audiences, I think that we need to also become more knowledgeable and savvy in understanding news markets and news organizations and how they differ. ...Stephanie Edgerly, Medill Associate Professor
Mersey said the data project was in part inspired by news coverage of Amazon’s multi-city competition for the location of its second headquarters.
“All the articles in the paper had these lists of all the variables that Amazon wanted in its second headquarters – level of education, commute time, access to airports, a social infrastructure, good housing. And they were rating cities on this metric,” Mersey said. “… And Owen and Stephanie and I sat down and said, the truth is, these infrastructures are so different, maybe we’ve been making a mistake all these years to suggest that there are solutions that apply across the news industry. In fact, that maybe these communities are different enough from one another that if something works in Indianapolis does not mean it is going to work in Orlando. But maybe if something works in Orlando, a kind of tourist revenue city, maybe that means it would work in Los Angeles.”
Mersey’s example is simply theoretical – not a conclusion – because the data work has just begun. But being able to place markets into categories – or as the researchers put it, “typologies” – is a key goal.
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