Recent Posts by Penny Abernathy

The Need for More Robust Local News Coverage: Questions with Clara Hendrickson

Clara Hendrickson

Clara Hendrickson

Alarmed by the shuttering of hundreds of local newspapers in the U.S.  as well as massive reporter layoffs in recent years, the Brookings Institution’s Clara Hendrickson undertook a study aimed at understanding what was at stake for American democracy and what could be done to reverse the trend. “Local Journalism in Crisis: Why America Must Revive Its Local Newsrooms” concludes, “When important stories go uncovered, communities do not have the information they need to engage in the political process and hold government and powerful private actors accountable.”

The Brookings report includes a number of suggested remedies that are being considered or have already been enacted elsewhere, including a tax deduction for subscribers to local news organizations, tax relief for publishers that produce public service news and public funding of news organizations. In addition, the report notes, “New regulations and antitrust enforcement targeting large online platforms can play a role in sustaining local media.”

Author Clara Hendrickson is a Research Analyst in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. Her research interests include rising regional inequality, the economic and political challenges posed by “big tech,” antitrust enforcement, and the rise of populism in the U.S. and Europe.

"Local Journalism in Crisis: Why America Must Revive Its Local Newsrooms"  -  Clara Hendrickson

Why did you decide to undertake this research?

After Donald Trump was elected President, many of us who study domestic politics and policy wondered how our understanding of fellow Americans’ sentiments could be so off base. I couldn’t stop thinking about the growing disconnect between the national coverage we relied on and the local communities that ultimately determine our national democratic experience. A dearth of local reporting has given way to news diets dominated by national coverage that often focuses on partisan conflict in Washington. It has also entailed a loss of readily available information about local communities that can feed into national coverage. In this way, each cut inflicted on a community that saw its newspaper disappear - or become a former shell of itself - has cumulatively resulted in a nationwide wound. From the opioid crisis to the loss of manufacturing jobs across the American heartland, I’ve often wondered what developments other than the election of President Trump would have been detected earlier had there been more robust local coverage.

What is causing the local journalism crisis?

The local journalism crisis is primarily fueled by the challenges confronting local newspapers. Between 2008 and 2018, America’s newspapers saw a 47% drop in newsroom employment. Newspapers laid off thousands of employees during the Great Recession, and newspaper publishing is the only sector of the journalism industry that has continued to shed jobs at an alarming rate during a period of economic recovery and expansion. The rise of digital media – which predates the recession – helps explain these troubling trends.  When readers moved online, so did advertising, resulting in a steep loss in print advertising revenue that has constrained publishers’ ability to invest in the production of local news at the level they have historically. While newspapers’ digital advertising revenue has grown in recent years, total advertising revenue has declined (between 2008 and 2018, newspapers experienced an astonishing 68% decline in advertising revenue). The twin problems of falling consumer demand and falling advertising revenue has led newsrooms to adopt cost-cutting measures that exacerbate the challenge. Efforts to ensure a newspaper’s short-term survival can threaten its long-term viability. A newspaper that is under-resourced and understaffed is unable to sustain and attract readers and advertisers willing to put their money into a product whose quality has diminished.

What role do large online platforms play in the local news crisis?

There is an international conversation underway about how large online platforms should be regulated and what antitrust enforcement in digital markets should look like. In the United States, the inaugural hearing held by the House Judiciary’s Antitrust Subcommittee as part of its investigation into digital markets examined the ways in which large online platforms have undercut news publishers’ business model. The digital advertising market, and Facebook and Google’s dominance in it, has presented the greatest challenge for news publishers. The two companies often know more about a news publishers’ readers than the publisher itself, making them the better option for advertisers who want to effectively target consumers. These two platforms may not spend money on the production of content but they reap tremendous profits off those who do make substantial investments in news production. The resulting imbalance of power means news publishers hold little power to extract fairer terms from large online platforms that have become indispensable business partners.

How do the solutions proposed by Local Journalism in Crisis provide a new perspective on this crisis?

While many continue to debate whether the market for local journalism can correct itself, the solutions I propose encourage government involvement to stave off further losses in local journalism. Efforts to sustain high-quality local reporting have generally taken the form of adopting the non-profit newsroom model. But so far, philanthropy has not come close to making up the revenue losses that have hit the industry in recent years. This portends a greater role for government both through providing public funding for local journalism and addressing the ways large online platforms have threatened the traditional business model for local news. The economic challenges confronting today’s local newsrooms are particularly troubling since the threats to the commercial viability of the local news industry greatly diminishes our ability to meet the demands of living in a democracy. Those who read, listen, and watch the news are not just consumers; they are also citizens. Public policymakers should ask themselves what kind of pressures the market for local journalism should be asked to withstand and what kinds of public support it merits.

Tracking the Changing Local News Landscape: Questions with Damian Radcliffe

Damian Radcliffe, Professor University of Oregon

Damian Radcliffe

Change is constant and often frenetic, especially when considering the local news landscape in the U.S. and abroad. As professor of the practice at the University of Oregon, Damian Radcliffe is a 2018-19 Faculty Fellow at the Agora Journalism Center at the School of Journalism and Communication, which serves as a “gathering place” – bringing together journalists and others in the Pacific Northwest to discuss how healthy journalism and healthy democracy are inextricably linked.

Radcliffe’s recent research has included tracking and analyzing how work habits and the attitudes of local journalists change over time in response to innovation. He also interested in how business models for local media have evolved in recent years. An active journalist, digital consultant and analyst, Radcliffe is also a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. He values long-term, comparative studies (such as the annual Digital News Report, state of media findings from Pew and research produced by his former employer the UK communications regulator, Ofcom), and is the co-author of a 2017 study of U.S. local newspapers.

Radcliffe recently convened a gathering of journalists and academics from the region at the Agora Center to update and revisit a 2016-17 study on local journalism in the Pacific Northwest. “If a week is a long time in politics . . . then four years is potentially a lifetime in the media business,” he said. Several themes emerged from the Agora gathering: maximizing limited resources, providing news and information to under-served communities, building trust and credibility, and doing things differently. He recently authored the first of three reports on that gathering.

“If a week is a long time in politics . . . then four years is potentially a lifetime in the media business.”  Damien Radcliffe

Click here to read Shifting Practices for a Stronger Tomorrow.

How did you become interested in this topic?

I moved to the Pacific Northwest (from across the pond) in September 2015. As a newcomer, I wanted to get the lie of the land in my new home, and a key part of that involved understanding the local media landscape. I have been writing about local journalism for some time, including authoring the first comprehensive report about the UK’s hyperlocal industry. Also, many of our students at the University of Oregon work for local news outlets when they graduate. So, understanding the local landscape matters, as these insights can be used to inform the teaching and advising that we do.

Alongside, at a national level, I was especially keen to learn about the experience of local journalists working at the coalface, as I felt that this was a perspective I seldom saw on a national scale in most journalism research. A much more common approach is in-depth interview and qualitative research with industry leaders. (Although I’ve done that too!)

To remedy this, in partnership with Dr. Christopher Ali at the University of Virginia, we designed an online survey allowing journalists to anonymously share their experiences, and from this we were able to find out how workloads were changing, what emerging media local journalists were interested in learning about, and their attitudes towards topics like engaged journalism. Anonymity resulted in very honest responses and hearing directly from journalists – and not their bosses – meant that respondents were free to break from the party line. Given how quickly the media landscape continues to evolve, I am currently revisiting previous projects to see what’s changed and what hasn’t. I think there’s a huge value in longitudinal, comparative research, even though the temptation (for researchers and journalists alike) is always to move on to something different.

Why did you decide to revisit the topic of shifting journalistic practices?

My background encompasses radio, TV, online and print, and all sectors – commercial, public and community media, as well as two media and telecoms regulators and now working for a University. Local journalism, and the wider potential and impact of new digital tools and technologies on journalistic practice, are clear threads that run through almost everything that I have done. I also have a long-standing interest in the business of media. Where possible, I try to combine these elements into practical, actionable, insights that can be used by industry.

As we know, the pace of change – in terms of the tools we use as journalists, the way media is consumed, the business models which underpin it – is relentless. Because of this, I wanted to see what had changed in the Pacific Northwest since our study in 2016-17; and I’m also looking into that nationally. However, I also wanted to find a more time-efficient way to gather intelligence than a series of in-depth interviews. And I also wanted to avoid publishing one big long report. There’s a risk that great ideas will be lost, and buried, if you take that approach.

With that in mind, I organized a roundtable in Portland (OR) last March, attended by 28 news outlets in the region. We split people up into three groups looking at business and revenue models, changing journalistic practice, and engagement. Each conversation was moderate by faculty from the J-School at the University of Oregon. The report on shifting journalistic practices is the first to be published. Lessons from the other two sessions will come out later this year. There were so many great ideas shared during the day we hosted; I’m determined that these examples are (shared widely) beyond the people that were in the room.

What did you learn, and how had this changed from 2017?

In 2017 much of the conversation focused on emerging storytelling formats and the philosophy of journalism (objectivity, distance, solutions journalism etc.). This time around, the focus was much more practical. We discussed issues of diversity in newsrooms, reaching non-English language audiences, the increasing importance of partnerships and the value of ceding control to your audience – getting them to suggest the stories we should be covering.

We also talked about local journalism’s secret sauce: its proximity to its audience, that local journalists live in the communities they’re reporting on, the value of longitudinal reporting, and the ability to reflect a community back to itself in a way that national media cannot. There’s a strong sense – and I think that’s even greater now - of us all being in this together.

What will you focus on next?

I have four main research projects on the go right now. I’ve just published my latest annual report on the state of Social Media in the Middle East. I’ve been producing these since 2012, the year after the Arab Spring, highlighting key changes in social media usage, and other developments such as the use of social networks as platforms for freedom of expression. This report – my eighth - was co-authored with Hadil Abuhmaid. I’m in promotion – and distribution - mode for this research now!

In terms of media business models, at the end of October, I published a study - The Publisher’s Guide to eCommerce – which offered ten strategic lessons for media companies looking to move into this space. I am currently working on a follow-up, which will be published in March, which will feature deeper-dives into specific players (such as BuzzFeed, POPSUGAR and Marie Claire UK) and the factors (like the power of platforms and the emergence of shoppable content) which will shape this domain.

In the local space, I’m working with two University students on a report looking at revenue and business in the Pacific Northwest. As with the report on Changing Journalistic Practice, the paper will focus on transferable lessons from this conversation.

Lastly, I am also working with a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin, Ryan Wallace on a new report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. This will be an update of the local journalism survey from 2016/17. I’m keen to understand the issues being faced on the shop floor in local newsrooms in 2020. and to see how this differs – or not, as the case may be – from our original survey four years ago. If a week is a long time in politics, to use a very British idiom, then four years is potentially a lifetime in the media business.

Statement on Oklahoma News Deserts

Local newspapers have historically been the prime source of credible and comprehensive news about important issues and events that affect the quality of lives of residents in a community. That’s why our research at UNC seeks to identify communities located in emerging “news deserts,” and those at risk of becoming news deserts, because their local “newspapers” no longer cover local government meetings or provide basic public service journalism. Therefore, in our 2018 report – as well as in our 2016 report -- we intentionally excluded shoppers, newsletters, specialty publications, advertising inserts and some zoned editions with no locally produced public service journalism – even if they were identified as newspapers in other industry databases.

Following an inquiry this week from a columnist at the Tulsa World about counties we had listed as lacking newspapers, we rechecked our initial assessment of the situation in Oklahoma and discovered two data-entry errors. The Marietta Monitor was listed in the wrong county, and the Wagoner County American-Tribune was inadvertently dropped from our database when it merged with the Coweta American in 2016.  We also ascertained from the Oklahoma Press Association that the Hollis News in Harmon County has closed.

However, despite extensive online and telephone research over the past two days, we have been unable to determine the status of the other four newspapers in question.  One appears to have closed and the other three appear to be either neighborhood newsletters or shoppers with no public service journalism.  In summary, we are now listing four counties in Oklahoma as having no local newspapers.

We stand by the conclusions in our 2018 report and by our methodology. In general, information on newspapers in our 2018 report was cross-referenced with at least four sources, including industry databases compiled by Editor and Publisher and BIA Kelsey, membership lists of state and regional press associations, and independent online research and analysis.

Despite extensive layers of verification, inadvertent errors invariably occur with a database this extensive. We are constantly working to update our database of more than 9,000 newspapers.  That is why we encourage crowd-sourcing to make sure our data is as accurate as possible.

We hope interested citizens, as well as researchers, will use the interactive maps on our website to drill down to the county level and compare how communities across the country have been affected by the diminishment of local news. If you believe we have omitted a newspaper providing public-service journalism to a community, or know of papers that have closed, please let us know using our correction form.

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.

Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism, Questions with James Hamilton


James T. Hamilton, Hearst Professor of Communication and Director of the Journalism Program at Stanford University

What is the value to society of investigative journalism? In his new book, Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism (Harvard, 2016), author James T. (Jay) Hamilton calculates the long-term economic consequence to society when lives are saved and disasters are averted by such reporting.  He argues that citizens who live in a community are the real beneficiaries of investigative journalism, regardless of whether they are subscribers to or viewers of the media outlets that invest significant time and money in a reporting effort that surfaces a societal problems and analyze the causes.  In contrast, most news organizations gain very little direct economic benefit.  With revenues and profit under pressure in many legacy news organizations, fewer such reports are being produced.  This “market failure” has long-term implications for society, argues Hamilton, which is why he hopes the book will be read by both journalists and non-journalists.

Hamilton, the Hearst Professor of Communication and Director of the Journalism Program at Stanford University, has a PhD in economics from Harvard University.  His research on computational journalism focuses on how the costs of story discovery can be lowered through better use of data and algorithms.  His previous books on media economics include All the News That’s Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into News (Princeton, 2004) and Channeling Violence: The Economic Market for Violent Television Programming (Princeton, 1998).

Click here to learn more about the book’s key findings. You can purchase the Democracy’s Detectives here.

How did you become interested in this topic?

While I was working in 2011 as part of the Federal Communications Commission Working Group on Information Needs of Communities, I was struck by the number of people outside of the agency who believed that the tumult in news markets was simply “creative destruction.” They believed that the public interest was defined by the public’s interest, that if a story was important it would be told, and that the decline of the media heralded a decline in the era of gatekeeping.

I take a different view. I think that public affairs stories involve what economists call positive externalities or positive spillovers. When a media outlet invests significant resources into discovering and telling a story that holds an institution accountable, it can be hard for the media outlet to capture the value for society that the story generates. The benefits may flow to many people who are not subscribers, and this makes it hard to generate sufficient revenue to fund these types of stories. The dearth of local public affairs reporting is probably the biggest market failure associated with news markets, but in an era of great variety and choice in many different types of information this gap in the market for public affairs stories gets neglected. I decided to write about the market for investigative reporting to see if I could document and describe the problems with the market’s under provision of this type of hard news. The process of researching and writing took five years, and the result is my new book, Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism. In the book I offer case studies that show that each dollar invested by a news outlet in an investigative story can generate hundreds of dollars in net benefits to society from changes in public policies.

There has been a dramatic decline in recent years of newspaper revenues and profits, as well as newsroom staffing. How might this have an impact on the role of investigative journalism?

The decline in resources and staffing has likely translated into a reduction in investigative work at many local outlets. In looking at top investigative reporting awards, I found that prize worthy work was becoming more concentrated. The top five outlets accounted for 30% of major awards in the 1990s, a figure that increased to 47% in the 2000s. Prize winning work now involves more journalists per project and more partnerships across media outlets, with major projects becoming team efforts whose results can be spread across many different audiences. I found that the average age of reporters winning Pulitzers for investigative work has increased by nearly ten years since the 1980s, which raises the question of where the next generation of accountability reporters will gain experience and training. Public records play a central role in investigative work, but I found at a sample of federal agencies between 2005 and 2010 that FOIA requests from media outlets had declined by 25%. FOIAs by local newspapers dropped by nearly 50%, while those from other media such as Bloomberg, AP, and niche outlets aimed at those with a business interest in government increased by 42%. This shift in FOIA activity away from local newspapers is consistent with the Pew Research Center’s finding that journalists from niche outlets now outnumber those from daily newspapers in the US Senate Press Gallery.

Why should newspaper publishers want to fund investigative journalism? Did you find any financial benefit to a newspaper from pursuing investigative reporting?

I found that newspapers that did investigative reporting did have distinct characteristics: they had larger circulations, which let them spread the costs of investigations across many readers; were in market areas with a higher median household income, which can translate into better ad support; and often were associated with family ownership or dual stock structures which allowed individuals who cared about the public service role of the paper to direct more resources to this reporting. Investigative reporting can be part of a strategy of product differentiation. In an era where people have many contending outlets which can offer the breaking news of the day, distinct stories allow you to stand out. If you are in a competitive news market online, price gets competed down to the marginal cost of offering one more page view, which is zero. You are in a competitive market if you are offering commodity facts that many people are repeating. Product differentiation comes when you tell a different story that does not have close substitutes. That story might be distinct because you’ve uncovered new facts, or because you’re telling the story in a particularly effective narrative, or you’re telling the story through people distinctive for their experience and voice. The long-term brand created by the expectation of new, important work is hard to measure. But in my analysis I did find companies such as McClatchy, which in the 2000s submitted at high rates to prize competitions run by Investigative Reporters and Editors, in the 1990s had participated in Civic Journalism programs, and in the 1970s and 1980s had CEOs who talked relatively more about public service than profits.

Tom Rosenstiel at the American Press Institute has done great work showing how at newspapers, “Major enterprise stories scored 48 percent better than others in a measure of overall engagement.” Longer stories do generate higher traffic and engagement. But even though investigative work can draw higher engagement, from the perspective of economics newspapers will still not be able to capture the full value generated when policies change because of the reporting. That means it will be underprovided in the market, and that sets up the challenge of thinking about how to better support it.

Most of the papers in this country are small, with a circulation of less than 15,000. What advice do you have for small community newspapers?

In my analysis of investigative work submitted to IRE prize competitions, I found that smaller newspapers devoted a greater share of their stories to very local topics such as education or community development and housing. These are the type of stories where they have a comparative advantage – they are much closer to these local policies, and these stories can differentiate them from news generated by outlets with a wider geographic audience and hence a wider geographic focus in stories. These stories can generate results that are individualistic (e.g., firings, resignations), deliberative (e.g., hearings or debates), and substantive (e.g., new policies). I found that 11% of the IRE submissions by smaller newspapers, for example, generated further investigations by others such as government agencies.

Advice for community newspapers would include:

  • Seek subsidies. IRE has offered training subsidies for small newsrooms and journalists from small newspapers. The Fund for Investigative Journalism offers grants for specific reporting projects.
  • Seek allies. ProPublica will often partner with local media outlets as a way to get more eyes on the ground on stories that have a highly localized dimension. ProPublica also publishes databases and reporting recipes that allow smaller newspapers to create a localized version of a broader story. Other nonprofit media outlets such as Reveal can be potential allies to join forces with on a story. The Google News Lab exists in part to help journalists discover local stories from Google data, and their tools and data on search can be places to start in the quest for new stories.
  • Seek new data. Right now at the state and local level data are being released online that can be the source of new accountability stories.

What lessons might non-journalists take from your book?

The central message of the book is relevant to all interested in how our democracy is functioning, namely that investigative journalism is underprovided in the market but new combinations of data and algorithms can make it easier for reporters to discover and tell the stories that hold institutions accountable.

Two of the main lessons from the book are hopeful. One is that if government officials came to acknowledge the market failures associated with investigative reporting, then their actions could translate into policies that would reduce the hassle costs of investigative work. This could include real implementation of the newly passed FOIA reforms, adding journalism as a field to support in federal R & D competitions focused on algorithms, tech, and data, and better implementation of open government and transparency policies.

A second lesson is that the evolving field of computational journalism holds the promise of lowering the costs of discovering investigative stories and of telling stories in more personalized and engaging ways. The field will advance more readily if:

  • Computer scientists who value the social gains from accountability take on research challenges in story discovery, telling, and distribution
  • Philanthropists focus on research questions about truly personalized news, accountability by algorithm, transcription and text mining, and analysis of corporate and government data for story discovery
  • Journalism educators work across disciplines to draw researchers to journalism challenges, and fundraise to support journalism scholarships for those headed for public affairs reporting
  • Reporters try news methods for social impact through new tools in discovery and storytelling

The actions of these different groups in combining computation and journalism may offer an expanded set of people new ways to hold power accountable, and allow them to serve as democracy’s detectives.

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