How Is Boise Like a Suburb of Nashville When It Comes to News?

Professors Call for Deeper Thinking About Media Markets and Innovation

In a project launched at Northwestern University, researchers are working on sophisticated ways to identify news media markets that are similar to each other. The thinking: If news publishers understand which markets are like theirs, they might find success with innovations that worked in those similar markets.

The Medill Local News Initiative’s Mark Jacob interviewed two of the researchers: Medill Associate Professor Stephanie Edgerly and Rachel Davis Mersey, a former Medill Professor and Associate Dean for Research who is now at the University of Texas at Austin. They have published a new white paper on their work with Owen Youngman, who recently retired as Professor and Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Here is an edited transcript of the interview with Edgerly and Mersey:

  • Mark Jacob

    What’s the main takeaway of your white paper on comparing media markets?

    Mark Jacob
  • Stephanie Edgerly

    With this paper we’re trying to identify different factors that make up local news markets. And a lot of the factors are not necessarily directly related to news. A lot of it is taking a community or an ecological approach. Looking at what industries exist in a given area. Looking at trends in demographics within a given area. What we’re trying to do is apply a sociological lens and a psychological lens to the geography of news consumption and what that means for news organizations and innovation strategies that will work in certain areas.

    Stephanie Edgerly
  • Mark Jacob

    You’re trying to determine what makes markets truly similar to each other for news purposes?

    Mark Jacob
  • Stephanie Edgerly

    Exactly.

    Stephanie Edgerly
  • Rachel Davis Mersey

    For the purpose of news producers right now—whether they work at print newspapers, digital outlets, television—looking at all of the innovations in news across the country or around the world is a really overwhelming prospect. So it’s hard for news organizations to know, “Where should I start?” I think when we group markets in a thoughtful way to look for like media markets, it’s going to be a real clue for media producers to be able to say, “You know, my market looks a lot like that market, and this innovation is working there, so I should spend more time looking at that particular innovation and how it might apply in my market.” I think it has real professional applicability on top of all of the tremendous intellectual value that Stephanie highlighted.

    Rachel Davis Mersey
  • Mark Jacob

    Let’s go through some examples. You write about The New Mexican in Santa Fe and its weekly entertainment supplement. It’s a town that’s very tourism-oriented as an economic driver. You suggest that there are places that are nowhere near Santa Fe that could benefit from seeing what they do because they’re more similar than they may realize. As examples, you cite Santa Barbara [Calif.], Palm Beach [Fla.], Asheville [N.C.], even Saugatuck [Mich.]. Explain to me why those are similar places even though they’re very different geographically.

    Mark Jacob
  • Stephanie Edgerly

    This is the big thing we’re trying to push against. We’ve become so ingrained into thinking about markets in terms of the geography, but there’s also a psychology of markets that can transcend geographic areas. This shift requires us to think differently. Of course, geography is part of the equation, and the typology that we apply in the paper does have elements of geography baked into it. But we’re trying to suggest that sometimes these industry opportunities like tourism, like an adjacency to a big city, require you to not necessarily be looking for geographic connections and more these intangible connections.

    Stephanie Edgerly

We’ve become so ingrained into thinking about markets in terms of the geography, but there’s also a psychology of markets that can transcend geographic areas.

Stephanie Edgerly, Medill Associate Professor
  • Mark Jacob

    Another example you cite is The Recorder, which is in Virginia’s Bath and Highland counties. That’s a really interesting one because they bumped up the point size on their type because they’re part of what might be considered “graying America,” with a lot of older people. Your point is that other places that have a lot of older consumers could benefit from paying attention to that.

    Mark Jacob
  • Rachel Davis Mersey

    I heard Anne Adams, the publisher there, speak. What really strikes me about this example is that when we talk about innovation in news marketplaces, we often talk about technological innovation or digital innovation—that it’s on a computer screen or a phone or even podcasting. What is really striking about this example is that her innovation is entirely in print and based on responding to the needs of an aging audience. There are 364 graying communities [in the United States] and they may not be geographically proximate to Bath and Highland counties, but these are marketplaces that should be thinking about the preservation of their print products for their core newspaper readership.

    Our call in this paper is to challenge news organizations to look for communities that are like them even if they’re not proximate to them, or communities that have defining characteristics that are similar to theirs, even if they’re not located in the same state or region.

    Rachel Davis Mersey
  • Mark Jacob

    In your paper you said The Recorder might be similar to some places in upstate New York, for example, or northern Maine.

    Mark Jacob
  • Rachel Davis Mersey

    When you look at the American Communities Project definitions, which we cite in the paper, there are huge swaths of “graying America” in places like upstate New York, Nevada, Wyoming, northern Maine, even Oregon.

    Rachel Davis Mersey
  • Stephanie Edgerly

    These news organizations are facing a similar challenge. What can they learn from similar news organizations that have a similar aging audience that are trying to deal with a print product and how that is received by an aging audience? Think of the kinds of resource sharing, the types of strategies—what’s worked, what’s not, “Have you tried this?”—that can happen if you start to link those conversations together across those types of markets.

    Stephanie Edgerly
  • Mark Jacob

    Another interesting example is primarily digital, and that’s BoiseDev and its “time wall.” Their members get the story ahead of time, before non-members do. You say that seems to work in Boise and it might work other places too that are like Boise but may not realize they are.

    Mark Jacob
  • Rachel Davis Mersey

    I think what’s interesting about Boise, as a gal who lived in Idaho for a couple years, I think there’s a lot of the country that thinks they’re nothing like Idaho. Yet when you look at the characteristics of Boise, it has tremendously rich local culture, a lot of sense of place saying “I’m proud to be from this community.” It has a tremendous amount of distinctiveness as a tech center that’s not Silicon Valley. That’s where a lot of the pride comes from. It has a growing, robust business community, and a well-educated workforce. Now all of a sudden, instead of sitting in a room of news producers and saying, “Who thinks their market is like Boise?” and just looking at demographics, we can look at market characteristics, the psychographics of a community, the infrastructure variables, and we can say that looks a lot like Williamson, Tennessee, right outside of Nashville, or Chatham, North Carolina, which is part of the research triangle. Now all of a sudden, communities that didn’t think they had something in common actually have a lot that makes them much more parallel and worth a look: Would this innovation potentially work in their marketplace?

    Rachel Davis Mersey

Now all of a sudden, communities that didn’t think they had something in common actually have a lot that makes them much more parallel and worth a look: Would this innovation potentially work in their marketplace?

Rachel Davis Mersey, Associate for Research, University of Texas at Austin
  • Mark Jacob

    These are good examples. But practically speaking, how do local news executives figure out which markets are similar to theirs?

    Mark Jacob
  • Stephanie Edgerly

    That’s what we’re trying to do. I don’t think it’s on individual organizations to do this work. We’re trying to start a conversation about the need, and potential, for this type of research focus. By building datasets that capture this approach, researchers can do a lot of that heavy lifting for news organizations. With this conceptual paper, our hope is to spur more research in this area, more research devoted to creating typologies that help news organizations identify like market areas.

    Stephanie Edgerly
  • Mark Jacob

    That’s the next step in your work – to define different types of media markets?

    Mark Jacob
  • Rachel Davis Mersey

    The brief answer to that is yes. We’re looking at the relationship between local news consumption and a broad array of infrastructure and psychographic variables. I think we’re going to contribute to this, but part of the reason to put this conceptual paper out is to see if other researchers in this space might also have a way to contribute to this.

    Rachel Davis Mersey
  • Mark Jacob

    That sounds like a good idea. It seems like a heavy lift.

    Mark Jacob
  • Rachel Davis Mersey

    Feel free to call it a tremendous lift. There are a lot of different ways to approach problems as complex as this. That's what makes it challenging. So I think psychologists will approach it differently than sociologists. And demographers will approach it differently than media researchers. And the best kind of development in this space is if a lot of them are contributing to solutions. We're really hoping to see a nationwide conversation about this.

    Rachel Davis Mersey
  • Mark Jacob

    So, ideally, as this research grows, it will help publishers zero in on the best practices for news outlets like theirs.

    Mark Jacob
  • Stephanie Edgerly

    Yes. This project was driven by the inefficiencies of best practices being handed down and having everybody in very different markets try the same things.

    Stephanie Edgerly
  • Rachel Davis Mersey

    We would often sit in rooms [and talk] about what innovations are working in the marketplace, and a lot of them would be coming from the Washington Post or the New York Times, two truly innovative organizations. Ultimately, their efforts are just not replicable in all media markets. It really got us thinking about the differences among markets. Innovations are not necessarily going to be equally successful across markets. So how can we help you be thoughtful about the innovations you even consider taking on?

    Rachel Davis Mersey

To contact Edgerly or Mersey about participating in this research, email stephanie.edgerly@northwestern.edu and/or rdm@austin.utexas.edu.

Article image by Morgan Lane used under Unsplash license (Unsplash)

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

About the project

Understanding Media Markets

Medill is analyzing data from a variety of media markets in a project to correlate local news consumption with other demographic factors in those areas. Each media market has its own personality, and no single solution can cure the problems of local news everywhere. But by identifying common characteristics, we can draw valid comparisons and share innovative ideas.

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