Who should pay for local public affairs journalism? Questions with Christopher Ali


Christopher Ali, Assistant Professor, University of Virginia

What exactly is local news and, more broadly, local media? How should we regulate it and how much do we value it? Is it important enough, for instance, for us as taxpayers to subsidize local news gathering organizations – or even more radically, should our governments provide local news free of charge, just as public education is offered free to all citizens?

Christopher Ali, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, tackles these questions in his new book, Media Localism: The Policies of Place (University of Illinois Press, 2017), which addresses the difficulties of defining and regulating local media in the 21st century in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada.

Ali has focused much of his research on the issues confronting local news organizations and the implications these difficulties have for the long-term viability of local news. Economists have long defined public service journalism as a “public good” since everyone in a community and a democracy benefits when citizens are well informed about the issues and choices confronting them.  In the article below, Ali argues that our democracy depends on free flow of information at the grassroots level. With local newspapers reeling from economic disruption, he posits that community-based, public service journalism should be considered not just a public good, but a “merit good” subsidized or provided free by government since it benefits our entire society.

Ali received his PhD from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and has worked for the Federal Communications Commission, consulted with the South Korean Committee on the Impact of Media Concentration, and was part of a consortium of researchers, activists, and practitioners intervening at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission regarding community and local media.  He is currently a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University co-authoring a report on the state of small market newspapers in the United States, Local News in a Digital World: Small Market Newspapers in an Era of Digital Disruption.  He is also a fellow at the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, where he will begin research on a new book, Farm Fresh Spectrum: Rural Interventions in Communication Policy, which examines the role that farming communities play in shaping communication policy.

To access his article, The Merits of Merit Goods: Local Journalism and Public Policy in a Time of Austerity, click here.

How did you become interested in this topic and this research?

I’ve always been interested in local media – local television in particular. My mother ran a local television station when I was growing up in Winnipeg (CKND-TV, now Global Winnipeg), so I guess you could say that an interest in all things local runs in the family. I’m particularly fascinated with the institutions and organizations that produce and regulate local media. As for the merit goods article, this is an idea that formed part of the concluding chapters of my forthcoming book, Media Localism: The Policies of Place, about local media policy in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The concluding three chapters investigate and propose different policy solutions for protecting and fostering local media, especially local news. One of the major challenges facing scholars interested in media policy and regulation is to get our research in front of regulators. Often regulators dismiss anyone who isn’t an economist or a lawyer. Not being an economist or a lawyer, myself, I wanted to find a way to use economic theory to talk about local news and to justify increased regulatory attention and even subsidy.  I argue that we need to stop calling local news a “public good” and call it what it actually is – a “merit good.”

What were some of the major research findings in either the academy or industry that preceded your work?

My research draws on three areas of previous research: work on local media policy, work on local news and local journalism, and work on local, place, space, and community. Because it is comparative, I look deeply into the scholarship on Canadian, American, and British local media ecosystems. There’s quite a lot of excellent scholarship on the idea of “localism” in American media policy, and there’s a growing body of research on local journalism, but there is relatively little on Canadian and British local media policy or local journalism. I hope that my work fills some of these gaps, in addition to updating the work of American scholars.

Something that I loved doing in my book is delving into philosophical ideas.  Indeed, one of the larger questions my entire body of scholarship and research addresses is: “what does it mean to be local in the digital age?” We used to think of being local as being synonymous with being in a place – a town, a city or a village. Today, however, this is not the entire story. What does it mean to be local when we can work in one location, go to school in another, live in a third and chat with a friend 1,000 miles away, all in the same day? What does this mean about our ideas of localness, place, community and space? Moreover, what does this mean for local news? What is local news anymore? I use these questions as a starting block to examine the policies, regulations, and laws governing our media systems.

What did you learn from your research?

  1. What policymakers think about being local is not at all consistent in either their given countries or when compared across countries. Most often, they do not give this question a lot of thought, which means that we are left with outdated policies that tend to favor the status quo and powerful media organizations, rather than policies and regulations that actually foster and encourage local media.
  2. To their credit, policymakers are growing more and more interested in local news and have come to recognize the importance of it to democracy, to our communities, and to our everyday lives. Still, they have been unable to craft an appropriate response.
  3. We need to think more holistically about local media, local media policy, and what it means to be local, if new policies are to be enacted. This means opening up the conversation to more stakeholders, and not just the incumbents and the powerful. It means moving away from our taken-for-granted ideas of being local. It means acknowledging that local media is more than just commercial television, and metro newspapers, but also includes public access television, community newspapers, public media, ethnic media, student media, etc… It also means rethinking the way that we fund local media, especially local news. This is where my merit goods argument comes from – finding new ways to justify funding mechanisms like subsidy and public expenditures to create the most robust local news ecosystems possible.

What are the implications of your research? What areas are you researching next?

Policy has an important role to play in encouraging local media and local news. Often times this gets overlooked or dismissed, especially here in the United States. There have been moments – policy windows – where excellent decisions have been made, and these are moments to learn from and replicate. For instance, there have been some excellent and exhaustive reports on local media – such as the FCC report on the Information Needs of Communities in the U.S., or the Lincoln Report in Canada – that have been almost completely forgotten. We need to have a sustained, holistic, and inclusive conversation about the type of local media ecosystems that we want and hopefully my work – both the book and the merit goods article – will contribute to this conversation by offering a new perspective on local media.

Right now I’m working on two major projects, both of which take their cue from Media Localism and from my merit goods article. First, as a Fellow for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, I have spent the last nine months working with my research partner, Damian Radcliffe of the University of Oregon, on assessing the state of small market newspapers in the country, with a particular focus on their use of digital technologies. This project included in-depth interviews with dozens of experts and practitioners and a survey of small market newsrooms. The results should be published in March.

My second major project is more about policy than about journalism. As a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication at the University of Pennsylvania I will start research on a new book that will look at the relationship between farming communities, communication technologies, and communication policy. It keeps me focused on localism, but allows me to investigate an area that is often neglected by scholars, researchers, and policymakers – rural communication.

Comparing media ownership models, and the future of “all-digital” news models: Questions with Merja Myllylahti

Merja Myllylahti, Auckland University of Technology

Since 2011, Merja Myllylahti, a former financial journalist, has been tracking media ownership patterns in New Zealand. During that time, ownership has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few barons. What are the implications of this for her country? Are there cautionary lessons for U.S. media companies, which are going through a period of contraction and consolidation? What does consolidation mean for the future of news organizations around the globe, struggling to develop new and sustainable digital business models?

Myllylahti, who worked for newspapers, digital and television news organizations in London 15 years before moving to New Zealand in 2009, is currently a researcher and project manager at the Journalism, Media and Democracy research center, based at Auckland University of Technology. She is the author of an annual New Zealand media ownership report and lectures in media communications and journalism studies at Auckland University of Technology and Massey University. Her research interests also include media transformation and digital media economics, news business models and paywalls. Her most recent publications include a book chapter “Newspaper paywalls and corporate revenues: A comparative study” published in Routledge Companion to Digital Journalism Studies (2017); and an academic article “What content is worth locking behind a paywall?” published in Digital Journalism (2016).

To read her reports on New Zealand's media ownership, click here.

For 6 years you've been researching and reporting on the shift in media ownership in New Zealand.  What has changed? What are the implications of this change?

During the past six years, the ownership of the leading commercial media companies in New Zealand has exclusively shifted to the hands of financial institutions. Consequently, we have seen heavy cost cutting and newsrooms have shrunk. Currently, the owners of the two leading newspaper publishers in New Zealand – New Zealand Media and Entertainment (NZME) and Fairfax Media - are trying to push through a merger of the two companies. If the merger goes through, the New Zealand newspaper market becomes one of the most concentrated in the world. This is not in the public interest as we already have a very concentrated media market that lacks in diversity. To learn more, you can access the New Zealand media ownership reports from 2011 through 2016 by clinking here.

How does the New Zealand media market compare with that of the U.S.? How are the challenges and opportunities confronting news organizations in these two countries similar?

Our media market is naturally much smaller than in the U.S.. We have five leading commercial news providers in the market. However, the problems news organizations are facing in New Zealand are very similar to those in the U.S. Newspaper revenues are shrinking, and publishers are struggling to gain digital revenue. There are some differences. For example, none of the leading newspapers in New Zealand have a paywall, but some local ones have introduced them. We only have one non-profit news venture, and new digital news companies are just starting to emerge. In broadcasting market, the pay television provider, Sky TV, is facing substantial competition from streaming services such as Netflix, and its revenue model is challenged.

Let's focus specifically on legacy news organizations, such as newspapers. You've done recent research on news organizations that are "all digital." In the near future, will most newspapers around the world be "digital-only"?

I have done in-depth research about business models of news publishers and their digital transformation. My PhD investigates this phenomenon in Australasian context. Currently I am researching digital revenues and expenses of news publishers, and I am interested to find out how the revenue structures support newsrooms in the future. My research paper, which examines if news publishers could abandon print and move digital-only, found that publishers are too print reliant to make such a move. For example, neither The New York Times Company or Gannett would be “ready” to move digital-only based on their digital revenue compared to their overall expenses. In 2015, digital revenue covered only 28 percent of the expenses of the New York Times and 26 percent of Gannett’s expenses. Neither of the two companies could move digital-only without further restructuring and cost cutting. Additionally, only 25 percent of The New York Times’ total revenue and 35 of Gannett’s came from the digital sources. This further confirms that the two companies are still very much print reliant in terms of their revenue.

A copy of the report, “Should newspapers move digital-only: A critical evaluation of digital and print revenue and expenses” is available by clinking here.

What's up next on your research agenda?

I am currently finishing a book chapter about journalism and newsroom metrics, and co-authoring an academic article about how journalists use Twitter in local elections. One of the bigger research projects I am undertaking involves investigating how sustainable e-commerce ventures are for news organizations. Additionally, I’m researching funding models for local news organizations since we have some interesting case studies emerging in New Zealand. For example, some of the new media ventures are primarily funded by sponsorships.

What Happens to Political Participation in Communities When Metro Papers Pull Back? Questions with Sarah Cavanah

Sarah Cavanah, Assistant Professor at University of North Dakota

Newspapers have historically served a critical role in our democracy, identifying the “hot button” issues that are debated and voted on in communities large and small.   Dr. Sarah Cavanah, an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota, is focused on researching the role of public affairs journalism in supporting healthy communities. A former newspaper and magazine journalist and public relations professional, she is the author of several educational books and workbooks aimed at elementary and middle school students and has served three organizations committed to supporting student media. She is originally from Marceline, Missouri.

Her dissertation examined how coverage of local issues in small surrounding communities by area metropolitan papers affected political participation on local elections. She examined coverage of events and issues in the area by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Denver Post and the Portland Oregonian over more than two decades, beginning in 1992. She found that when the three metro papers covered hot-button issues in outlying communities, more voters in that community turned out at the polls, even in off-year elections. You can access an excerpt of her findings and learn more here.

How did you become interested in this topic and this research?

My first “journalism” job was as an assistant everything at the weekly paper in my Missouri hometown, The Marceline Press.  I started as a sophomore in high school and worked my way through high school.  As a result, I’ve always been interested in how news is consumed in rural communities and what affect it has on decision-making at the very local level. So when I began working on my doctoral dissertation at the University of Minnesota, I decided to explore how having access to different types of news from different sources – a metro paper, as well a community paper – might affect decision making in small communities. Since the campus is close to downtown Minneapolis, and I had access to decades of content from metropolitan newspapers, I decided to statistically measure the journalistic content on small communities carried in metro papers and see if it affected voting, for instance.

What were some of the major research findings in either the academy or the industry that preceded your work?

My dissertation was preceded by decades of research, mostly from political scientists, on the effects of access to news on political participation. In terms of research on rural news, we have some great case studies and best practices, but fewer comparative statistical studies because there is less data.

I started with an idea drawn from previous work and theory – that, in general, metro newspapers are more likely to cover “conflicts” within small communities than news outlets based in those communities. Here I always have to pause and emphasize “in general.” As everyone who works in community journalism knows, this varies by news outlet.  There are plenty of small news outlets that do cover the “conflicts” in their community. But in general, smaller news outlets have tended to focus more on the meat-and-potatoes journalism of everyday life in a community – PTA and church meetings, local events such as weddings and deaths – than on aggressive public affairs reporting that sets the agenda for debate of policy issues.

In formulating my ideas, I used the work of the “Minnesota Group,” three social science researchers at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s and 1980s, who compared the content in news outlets in small communities to outlets in larger, more pluralistic communities. Kristy Hess in Australia has added to our understanding about the various societal roles and functions that news organizations nurture. Additionally, research by Lee Shaker at Portland State and a study by the Federal Reserve looked at what happens to political activity in small communities in a region when a newspaper in the area closes.

What did you learn from your research?

Previous research in both mass communication and political science has demonstrated a link between news coverage and political voting.  News coverage lets an individual know something is happening in the area that will impact life there.  Knowing more about the major issues spurs people to the polls. I definitely think I can see that in the data I collected. In Minnesota, for example, let’s take a hypothetical average town. We can call it Hometown and it would be about 130 miles from downtown Minneapolis. Hometown is perfectly average, but average has changed some since 1990. For instance, it’s grown from 4,617 people to 5,959, average household income is up and those households are more ethnically diverse than they used to be. However, more people live in poverty in Hometown than at the start of the study period, too. Hometown is served by a county weekly and sometimes gets coverage from a once-daily/now three-times-a-week in a city of 50,000 not too far away.

Hometown news appears in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the statewide metro paper, at about the same rates as it did in 1990, which is surprising, as the Star-Tribune has cut back on its news-hole quite a bit during this period. That’s the great news in this picture: Newspapers tried through shrinking budgets and opportunities to preserve coverage for some communities. This is a good thing for Hometown, too, because holding all those demographic factors constant, if it had lost coverage, it would have seen 355 fewer votes in elections where the U.S. president is chosen and 633 fewer votes in those “off-cycle” elections that don’t include choosing the president. That’s a significant chunk of non-voters in a town of 6,000 people.

Unfortunately, not everyone was as lucky as Hometown. Coverage has declined for communities in the study states based on certain factors, especially their distance from the metro newsroom and their size. There’s also an effect for age: Towns with older average populations lost out, too. Basically, if you are small and distant — and have lost young people to migration — you’re the biggest loser of them all when it comes to metro coverage. That loss shows up in the polls, where turnout declines. Keep everything the same in Hometown, but move it 82 miles farther away from the metro, and you see those declines. Or, keep everything the same and have Hometown lose population instead of gaining and those declines start to occur.

This is exactly what decades of research predicted would happen. The Minnesota Group warned in the 1980s that metro newspapers were pulling back from these communities and that their residents would see an increasing “knowledge gap” compared to other communities about what they knew about their world and its happenings. We’ve had indicators for a while that when people go out to vote for president, they have a ton of national news to pick from, which leads to more knowledge and more turnout.

Where we are losing the battle is in locally available news: We’ve gone from a system that had essentially three layers: state-level news, city-regional news and very local news to one that is almost down to just that very local source for local news. Lack of local news means that people don’t know they need to vote when the presidency isn’t on the line, and they don’t turn out. But those elections make a huge difference in day-to-day life in those communities, probably more than any president ever will. I think there’s plenty of data already presented to support this, but here’s the kicker: Communities in my study with a daily newspaper — and I counted three issues or more a week as a daily — vote at much higher rates than those without dailies in non-presidential years, while there’s no impact on presidential years. Local news leads to an informed and motivated public when it comes to local issues. Metro coverage matters, but it doesn’t matter as much if you have an active daily source in your community.

What are the implications of your research? What areas are you researching next?

I believe healthy communities need access to public affairs reporting on vital quality of life issues – such as the environment, education, health – in order to stay healthy. Next, I want to study the possible effects on a community that loses access to this type of news.  Conversely, I also want to study the benefits of access to such content. This is a somewhat under-theorized area. I think public affairs reporting helps people understand the way their specific communities function. So, I’m looking to research the correlation between access to locally focused public affairs journalism and the “social cohesion” of a community.   Low property crime, high school graduation rates, low vacancy rates – there are typically measures indicating healthy communities.

Dr. Cavanah’s entire dissertation can be found here.