Recent Posts by Zachary Metzger

The Media Struggle for Sustainability is Worldwide: Questions with Anne Nelson

Anne Nelson, research fellow at the Saltzmann Institute at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs

Media in the United States are not alone in struggling to find a new model for sustainability and profitability. Anne Nelson, author, lecturer and a research fellow at the Saltzmann Institute at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, surveyed more than 220 individual newspapers and media executives in more than 60 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Her report, “Financially Viable Media in Emerging and Developing Markets," described how they were dealing with the problem. Newspapers around the word varied in their tactics based on local literacy, stages of economic development, and strength of their digital infrastructure. Nelson was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the New York Institute for the Humanities.  Her most recent book is Shadow Network:  Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right.  

“Prestigious news organizations in the U.S. and abroad gravely underestimated the challenge presented by digital platforms as they emerged over the past two decades, especially their capacity to blow up the traditional advertising,” Nelson says.

Click here to read her report.

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

I spent the early stage of my career as a reporter in Latin America, covering the war in El Salvador and Guatemala and elections in the region. From there I became the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (1988-1992) and the director of the International Program at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (1995-2002). I also served as a board member and advisor for various international training programs for journalism. I became keenly aware that U.S. institutions were investing in improving the quality of journalism abroad, but there was often not a market or a political culture to sustain high quality professional independent journalism. I was lucky to find organizations such as the World Association of Newspapers and the Center for International Media Assistance that shared my concerns and commissioned my research.  The problem is more urgent than ever, as the business model for professional print and broadcast journalism has continued to weaken in the U.S. and abroad.  

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

I'd say that the industry and the donor communities were ahead of academia in this field. I found that academics involved in journalism and media studies fell into two camps -- either engaged in a noble pursuit of quality, believing that the "church and state" divide with the business side was an immutable truth, or building a sociological model of mass communications that was equally dismissive of business models. Part of the problem was that the business model began to fall apart just as newspaper and broadcast profits reached their apex in the 1990's. It seemed unlikely to them that the new digital world would kill the goose that laid the golden egg, but that's what happened. Institutions such as the World Bank, the World Association of Newspapers, and the Center for International Media Assistance were more prone to look at the eroding business models, and I drew heavily on their previous research that showed which news organizations were struggling. I also benefited from the International Center for Journalists, which sent U.S. journalists abroad to train international partners and where I sat on the selection committee. They made a practice of sending people from the business side as well as editorial, and they came back with valuable insights, although these weren’t always published. 

What did you learn from your research?  

  1. Prestigious news organizations in the U.S. and abroad gravely underestimated the challenge presented by digital platforms as they emerged over the past two decades, especially their capacity to blow up the traditional advertising model.  Therefore, they didn't seek ways to shape regulation that would have helped protect journalism as a public good at a time when the new laws and the norms were in formation. 
  2. The erosion of the newspaper industry differed greatly in different regions, based on factors such as literacy, stages of economic development, and speed of creation of digital infrastructure. When U.S. and some western European news media were suffering major decline, newspapers were earning robust profits in less developed markets such as India and Colombia. This could often be attributed to populations with growing literacy rates and blue-collar or middle-class employment -- people who could buy a paper on the way to work, but couldn’t afford much of a data plan for their mobile phones. Tabloids and other mass-market products were often the beneficiaries.
  3. The biggest mistake of the newspaper industry was to fail to understand the power of digital advertising and its ability to micro-target the consumer.  
  4. Quality professional journalism is a necessary pillar of democracy, on both a national and a local level. In the U.S., local and regional journalism have suffered the worst, and the news deserts have had a visible impact on state-level political culture. The countries that have managed this crisis the best, such as Sweden, have offered state financial support for local journalism without editorial influence.

What are the implications of your research? 

As the United States crossed the 200,000 mark in COVID-19 deaths, we saw the dolorous effect of misinformation on our public welfare. A robust news media would have gone far in averting this disaster and the additional casualties that await us. Areas of the U.S. lost the benefit of fact-based reporting with a respect for science and informed public policy. This has left their populations prey to flawed and malicious misinformation emanating from partisan sources and bad actors from abroad. (See https://washingtonspectator.org/anatomy-of-deceit/). One voice that addresses the question of solutions is Victor Pickard in his book Democracy Without Journalism? There he demonstrates the need for the public good of journalism in a democratic society and points to models such as Sweden, where government support has preserved its benefits.  In my new book, Shadow Network, I describe the “news deserts” in the U.S., and the highly politicized media outlets that are exploiting them in the guise of “news” operations.

Interview conducted by Bill Arthur

[caption id="attachment_5765" align="alignright" width="250"] Anne Nelson, research fellow at the Saltzmann Institute at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs[/caption]

Media in the United States are not alone in struggling to find a new model for sustainability and profitability. Anne Nelson, author, lecturer and a... -->

Do Tax, Charity Laws Inhibit Funding for News? Questions with Robert Picard

Robert Picard, senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at University of Oxford

As newspapers and digital sites struggle for financial stability, industry executives and policymakers have been exploring and proposing new business models, including laws and regulations that encourage nonprofit support from charitable organizations and foundations.

Robert Picard, senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at University of Oxford, has for years been examining the connection between laws and journalistic sustainability. Picard, also a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and an affiliated fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale University Law School, recently published his findings in a report on “The Impact of Charity and Tax Law/Regulations on Not-for-Profit News Organizations.”

”Philanthropic models of new organization operations cannot be effective without changes to charity and tax laws and regulations,” he concludes.

Picard brings years of experience to his studies, having taught at Oxford and Harvard University. He is the author and editor of 33 books and has been editor of the Journal of Media Business Studies and The Journal of Media Economics. Picard received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri, Columbia, and had post-doctoral study and fellowships at University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and Oxford. He has consulted and carried out assignments for governments in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia and for international organizations including the European Commission, UNESCO, and the World Intellectual Property Organisation. He has been a consultant for leading media companies in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. 

Click here to see the report.

1) How did you become interested in this topic?

For the past four decades my focus has been on why news organizations have failed and what can be done about it. The current crisis follows almost seven decades of struggles to maintain competing news organizations and news organizations in rural areas and suburbs. I have been particularly interested in public policy responses that can support news organizations and innovations in news gathering and delivery.

 2) What were some of the major research findings in the academy or industry that informed your work? 

Multiple studies have shown that news organizations, as well as other types of business, require a supportive political and economic environment to sustain themselves. This has been a major finding of research on creating a sustainable journalism and a free press in global development studies and in western studies on newspaper sustainability and digital startups. It is not enough to have good intentions. They must be bolstered by supportive public policies that provide factors that make independent news enterprises possible and facilitate their operations by making revenue models possible and providing indirect and direct support to them.

The failure of many news organizations and digital startups in the U.S. and other Anglo-American countries has been laid on the inability or difficulty to obtain legal status to operate as a non-profit charitable organization.

3) What did you learn from your research?

Our research in this study revealed:

  • Journalism is typically not perceived as an educational activity covered by charity and tax laws and regulations.
  • Journalistic activities of charitable organizations are constrained in analysis and commentary of political activities that are important parts of the role of new organizations in democratic society. Most charity laws preclude charities from taking political positions or making endorsements.
  • Tax deductible donations to support journalism and news organizations require the receiving organizations to have charitable status and be recognized in tax law, and it is difficult for governments of the U.S. and other countries with Anglo-based legal systems to provide subsidies to some enterprises but not to others.
  • Philanthropic models of new organization operations cannot be effective without changes to charity and tax laws and regulations.

4) What are the implications of your research?

  • The legal and regulatory requirements and processes for receiving charitable status that supports tax deductible donations need to be changed to recognize journalism as an educational function that serves the public good.
  • Tax laws must be concurrently changed to recognized tax deductibility of gifts to journalistic news organizations
  • The use of commercial activities (advertising, merchandising, events) to support journalistic activity should not preclude granting and maintenance of charitable status.
  • Charitable status and favorable tax laws alone will not be sufficient to ensure sustainability of journalism.

Interview by Bill Arthur

 

[caption id="attachment_5743" align="alignright" width="234"] Robert Picard, senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at University of Oxford[/caption]

As newspapers and digital sites struggle for financial stability, industry executives and policymakers have been exploring and proposing new business models, including laws and... -->

Democracy Needs Good Journalism: Questions with Victor Pickard

Victor Pickard, professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication

The collapse of the business model supporting both local newspapers and digital start-up endeavors has left many U.S. communities with a dearth of critically important news and information. Because an informed citizenry is crucial for democracy to thrive, the situation raises the question: Can we have democracy without journalism? In his latest book, Democracy Without Journalism? Victor Pickard examines the current American journalism scene, focusing on why the business collapsed and what can be done to revive and support local journalism.

Pickard is a professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, where he co-directs the Media, Inequality & Change (MIC) Center. Besides Democracy without Journalism? he has written or edited five other books, including America’s Battle for Media Democracy; Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights (with Robert McChesney), and After Net Neutrality (with David Berman).

Click here for information about the book.

“The systemic market failure that’s afflicting our news industries necessitates policy interventions and public alternatives,” Pickard says.

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

I’ve been interested in the history and future of journalism since my graduate school days at the University of Illinois. I also was immersed in future-of-news debates while working on policy reform in Washington, D.C., before taking an academic job. In the spring of 2009, I was the lead author on a report published by Free Press titled Saving the News. Even then, it was clear that the advertising revenue model for journalism was irreparably broken and we needed to find structural alternatives. Unfortunately, the U.S. has wasted more than a decade searching for new business models and technological fixes instead of focusing on systemic solutions to news media’s market failures. Thus far, meaningful public policy responses to the journalism crisis have been almost nonexistent.

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

A number of research trends guided me in my recent work and support conclusions that I draw from my historical research. Growing evidence shows that losing local journalism is highly deleterious for democratic society, that strong public media systems correlate positively with strong democracies, and that none of the previously celebrated solutions -- from paywalls to crypto-currencies -- are supporting the level of local journalism that democracy requires. Included among this recent research has been Penny Muse Abernathy’s invaluable work on the rise of news deserts and the growing threat of monopolies and vulture capitalists to the future of local journalism.  

 

What did you learn from your research?  

My historical research shows that commercial journalism has always been prone to crisis and fraught with core tensions and contradictions. Platform companies, newspaper monopolies, hedge funds, and now the coronavirus pandemic have all exacerbated these structural problems, but they are not the root cause. The fundamental flaw, in my view, is the overreliance on advertising revenue and the underlying commercial logic that has far too often superseded democratic concerns and public needs.


I also learned from my research that many historical and international experiments have tried to address these structural problems, including various kinds of media subsidies, municipal-owned newspapers, and other noncommercial initiatives. These experiments can help broaden our imagination for what’s possible now.

What are the implications of your research?

Several key implications emerge. The systemic market failure that’s afflicting our news industries necessitates policy interventions and public alternatives. This doesn’t mean that commercial outlets cannot exist -- even flourish in some cases -- but it does mean that for all communities across the U.S. to have equal access to reliable news and information, a public media system is paramount. Neither the market nor private philanthropy will provide this kind of universal service. However, I’m also clear in my analysis that by “public” I actually mean publicly owned and controlled -- not just in name only. This means that future newsrooms should look like the people they serve and be democratically governed by local communities and by the journalists themselves. In my final analysis, I see the current crisis as an opportunity to entirely reinvent our news media system from the bottom up -- to re-imagine what journalism could and should be.

This interview conducted by Bill Arthur.

[caption id="attachment_5747" align="alignright" width="300"] Victor Pickard, professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication[/caption]

The collapse of the business model supporting both local newspapers and digital start-up endeavors has left many U.S. communities with a dearth of critically... -->

Political Ads and Local TV News: Questions with Danilo Yanich

Danilo Yanich, professor of urban affairs and public policy at the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware

 As hometown newspapers disappear, residents often turn to local television stations for their news and information, especially about state and local political candidates and issues. Political ads on local television are the most important way candidates in the United States convey their messages, says Danilo Yanich, professor of urban affairs and public policy at the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware, who has done significant research on consolidation of local media.

His recent book, Buying Reality: Political Ads, Money and Local Television News, published by Fordham University Press in April 2020, examines political communication through a comparison of the political ads and political stories produced by local television stations in the 2016 campaigns. A two-time presidential fellow at the Salzburg Global Seminar, Yanich is now designing two research projects that will examine how local television news covered the COVID pandemic, and the possible effect of ownership on broadcast news content. Here, he comments on his research on the 2016 campaign and compares it to the 2020 race.

“The local television journalism that I examined in 10 markets, either by incapacity or unwillingness, did not challenge those claims (in political advertisements).  In so doing, citizens were left to their own devices to ferret out fact from fiction,” Yanich says.

How Influential Was Advertising in 2016?

Political campaigns in the U.S. are based on money -- a lot of it.  As a result, political ads on television are very big business. That is exactly what happened in the 2016 election, especially in battleground states. There were stark differences in how the presidential and down ballot races (campaigns for Senate, House of Representatives, governor, etc.) appeared on local TV newscasts.  In the presidential race, Hillary Clinton and her supporters bought 75 percent of the political ads. Previously that would have translated into victory. In fact, Clinton won the popular vote. But Donald Trump won the election with more Electoral College votes, in large part, because he reaped the benefit of $5 billion in coverage for which he did not pay. Trump’s tweets were irresistible to the television networks as he made one outlandish statement after another. It was an unprecedented campaign. But, for the down ballot races it was business as usual. Those candidates did not enjoy the celebrity of the presidential contenders. They relied on political ads on local TV newscasts, not tweets, to convey their messages.  That being the case, what did the public learn about those races?  Who controlled the political rhetoric of local campaigns?

Why Local TV News?

First, its audience -- on an average day local television news has more than 18 million viewers. That dwarfs the 1.9 million the combined average daily viewers of CNN, Fox and MSNBC. Second, its ubiquity -- 6,400 hours of local newscasts are presented in the U.S. every day and viewers spend an average of 2.5 hours a day watching it. Third, trust -- it is the most trusted source of local information, greatly outpacing social media. The Covid pandemic vividly demonstrated that point as local TV viewership jumped 35 percent when people desperately needed information about their local situation. Fourth, the voters -- viewers of local TV newscasts, are the most likely to vote. That is where the “undecideds” are, as President Obama’s campaign manager called them. Fifth, local TV news has become vitally important for local information as local newspapers disappear in the U.S.  Finally, and crucial for my purposes, that is where the money is. In 2016, local television stations got a total of $4.4 billion to air political ads.

What Did You Learn From Your Research?

In my book, I looked at 10 television markets, or Designated Market Areas, nine of which were in battleground states during the last two months of the 2016 campaign. I found three significant imbalances. Two were the result of decisions by the political candidates and the PACs that supported them. The third was the result of decisions made by local television stations about how they would cover the campaign.

Imbalance 1: The volume of ads: Hillary Clinton sponsored three times more ads than Donald Trump and lost. Trump did not need the ads because he recognized the campaign as a reality show and got more free media coverage than any other candidate in history.

Imbalance 2: The target of ads and the money: In the ten markets, the stations aired more than 200,000 ads for which they were paid more than $220,000,000. But, neither the ads nor the money were evenly distributed between the presidential and down ballot races. Two-thirds of the political ads on local TV were directed at down ballot campaigns. Two-thirds of the money also went there. This was the “business as usual” aspect of the campaign.  Political ads, not tweets, were the primary mechanism that candidates and PACs used to persuade voters for local races.

Imbalance 3: The coverage of the campaigns: Although the overwhelming majority of ads were directed at the down ballot races, local television newscasts almost ignored them in their political coverage. Only 13 percent of the time devoted to political stories addressed local races. Rather, the local TV stations directed their attention overwhelmingly to the Trump-Clinton contest. The time spent on political ads outstripped political stories by an average of 13 to 1.  As a result, voters were left to their own devices to fill in the space, the bought reality, between what the ads said was real and what the political stories covered. 

Voter turnout among the DMAs ranged from 67 percent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to 47 percent in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Las Vegas DMA (#40) saw the highest number of political ads among the markets. But the difference in the amount of broadcast time devoted to political ads --23 percent -- versus political stories -- 13 percent was also the highest among the markets. That said, the Cedar Rapids voter turnout occurred in the face of the second highest gap, with ads at 22 percent and political stories at 14 percent of broadcast time.

What about 2020?  The short answer is that it was 2016 on steroids. The campaign cost an estimated $14 billion, doubling 2016. Although a contagious president still held rallies, the Covid pandemic greatly diminished retail politics, so political advertising became even more prominent. Conventional wisdom said it was going to move to the Internet. That happened to a point. But TV won those sweepstakes, particularly, local TV. Between January and mid-October 2020, local TV got $4.26 billion; digital ads generated $1.5 billion, local cable got $1.19 billion, and network television came in at only $109 million. That imbalance will become more pronounced as the final tallies are made.

Donald Trump understood that 2020 would not be a repeat of 2016 regarding free media. He generated over 2.5 times his 2016 total revenue and almost doubled his media buy. Joe Biden exceeded him in both categories.

Why Does the Picture Look This way?

This version of politics, money and media should not be a surprise. We set it up this way. There are three factors which I call a “perfect storm.” The first is that our politics are based on what Francis Lee describes as “insecure majorities.” Control of our political institutions, particularly the presidency and Congress, is now tenuous from one election to another. When the majority is insecure and the possibility of control over the institution is in play, politics is played as a zero-sum game in which bipartisan efforts are the victim. Second, we have a political campaign finance system that almost guarantees that version of politics as it makes money the central concern of candidates. Third, we have a media system that benefits greatly from the first two features. Media scholars Robert McChesney and John Nichols have called it the “money-media election complex.”

What Are the Implications of Your Research?

The short answer is that political reality is bought. Political ads spout their versions of the truth and, with all that money, the sponsors make their claims over and over again. The repetition works, but a perverse calculus seems to be in play. Stations make ever increasing profits from content that, by its very nature, does not represent a neutral reality. That is the right of the political advertisers. But the station owners’ public interest obligation as license holders should press them to offer critical analyses of that very content. The local television journalism that I examined in the 10 markets, either by incapacity or unwillingness, did not challenge those claims.  In so doing, citizens were left to their own devices to ferret out fact from fiction. But their devices are fundamentally dependent on an active and challenging press.  Our democracy depends on that very arrangement. Which citizen can follow a candidate around to determine if her actions match the positions she espouses on her ads? Which citizen can file a claim for public information to verify one or another reality? Which citizen can take the place of journalism? 

It is true that citizenship requires effort. It should. And there is the argument that citizens have untold ways now to pursue information. That is also true.  But that does not abrogate the public interest obligation that television station owners have, and claim to protect, in the defense of their broadcast licenses. I do not begrudge the media firms’ pursuit of profit. They are private firms delivering a public good called news. But, from my examination of these 10 markets, political stories could not compete with political ads, particularly for the down ballot races. As a result, on those newscasts, political reality was dominated by those who had the resources to buy it.

This interview conducted by Bill Arthur.

[caption id="attachment_5868" align="alignright" width="254"] Danilo Yanich, professor of urban affairs and public policy at the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware[/caption]

 As hometown newspapers disappear, residents often turn to local television stations for their news and... -->

Getting Readers to Pay: Questions with Iris Chyi

Hsiang Iris Chyi, associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin

As they struggle to make enough money to stay in business, U.S. newspapers have increasingly turned to digital subscriptions. But readers have been reluctant to pay for digital subscriptions after years of getting information for free online. Hsiang Iris Chyi, associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, and colleague Yee Man Margaret Ng examined the problem in their 2020 article Still Unwilling to Pay: An Empirical Analysis of 50 U.S. Newspapers’ Digital Subscription Results.

They found that newspaper readers remain strongly attached to the print product. Chyi’s “Ramen Noodles Theory” suggests that online news is like ramen noodles -- food, but not the best food. In her book, Trial and Error: U.S. Newspapers’ Digital Struggles toward Inferiority, she questions U.S. newspapers’ technology-driven strategy and suggests a reassessment of the industry’s future. Soon after this study was released, reader interest in newspapers spiked as COVID-19 threatened populations around the world. Chyi is eager to study whether the pandemic has dramatically narrowed the persistent reluctance of consumers to embrace digital editions.

“News consumers’ lukewarm response to digital subscriptions has largely remained unchanged, raising concerns about the viability of the subscription model as a revenue source for digital journalism,” Chyi says.

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

At a young age I developed a keen interest in both journalism and digital technology. With my training in economics, I started studying online news consumption in 1996 -- the year when The New York Times launched nytimes.com. Since then, as a researcher I have witnessed how the newspaper industry struggles through the digital jungle, and I hope to help this weakened-yet-still-important industry understand why news consumers respond to multiplatform news products the way they do.  

What were some of the assumptions the industry acted upon during its digital transformation process?

“The future is online,” because “print is dead.” Therefore, we must “transform ourselves digitally” and “meet audiences where they are (e.g., social media).”

Based on these unchecked assumptions, newspaper firms during the past 25 years have experimented with all kinds of technologies (web, e-readers, smartphones, tablets, watches, and social media), but for the vast majority of newspapers the results of these experiments have fallen short of expectations. With dwindled resources, the investment in digital is often hurting the quality of editorial content, while the print edition remains the core product in terms of readership, subscription and advertising revenue.

What did you learn from your recent study on digital subscriptions?  

Our study examined 50 U.S. newspapers’ digital subscription results through analyzing their circulation and pricing data. Digital nonreplica subscriptions (Web and app) were sold at 23 percent of the price for a print subscription. Deep discounts for new digital subscribers were common practice at 25 cents per week.

However, even after the “Trump Bump,” these newspapers’ digital subscribers were, in most cases, underwhelming. Nonreplica digital circulation was only 6 percent of their print circulation. Even with digital replica subscribers, total digital circulation was only 12 percent of print circulation. (Note that print circulation has been declining for decades.)

With a price so low and a subscribership so small, we estimated that digital subscriptions accounted for only 3 percent of total subscription revenue.

What are the implications of your research? 

Digital performance this weak indicates that news consumers’ lukewarm response to digital subscriptions has largely remained unchanged, raising concerns about the viability of the subscription model as a revenue source for digital journalism.

Often news executives assume newspaper readers are platform-agnostic, but the findings of this study suggest that they are anything but. Despite continued declines, the print edition, at a much higher price, remains the most consumed format and the primary revenue driver for the vast majority of newspapers. (Even for The New York Times, its digital revenue exceeded print revenue for the very first time in Q2 2020, with 5.7 million online-only subscriptions.) The “online news is an inferior good” thesis provides an explanation for the difficulty in getting people to pay for digital news. The screen-based reading experience is less than optimal, and the cluttered design and intrusive ads commonly seen on newspaper sites add to the level of annoyance. The power of tangibility in cognitive processing, which is still understudied, may be driving the print-digital gap, too.

The fact that most newspapers offer digital news access to print subscribers at no additional cost indicates a clear intention to convert print readers to digital. However, given the price gap between print and digital editions, encouraging high-paying readers to switch from print to digital runs the risk of “exchanging analog dollars for digital dimes.”

Soon after our study was released, COVID-19 turned the world upside down. I am eager to study whether this pandemic has dramatically narrowed the persistent print-digital gap. The answer is likely the final verdict on newspapers’ paywall experiment.

This interview conducted by Bill Arthur.


[caption id="attachment_5864" align="alignright" width="300"] Hsiang Iris Chyi, associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin[/caption]

As they struggle to make enough money to stay in business, U.S. newspapers have increasingly turned to digital subscriptions. But readers... -->

What Makes Not-For-Profit News Tick? Questions with Magda Konieczna

Magda Koniecza, assistant professor of journalism at Temple University

Journalists and others have begun looking more closely at a nonprofit model for news publications as the business model dependent on advertising revenue has dwindled drastically. Since 2008, nonprofit newsrooms in the United States have opened at an average rate of about one a month, but many struggle financially. Magda Konieczna examined the problem in her 2018 book, Journalism Without Profit: Making News When the Market Fails, in which she contends that nonprofits aren’t just a new way of doing “the same old journalism.” 

Konieczna, assistant professor of journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia, has examined the status of nonprofits in the news from several angles, including a May 2019 article on The Conversation website entitled Why Congress Needs to Empower the IRS to Give Nonprofit Newspapers a Green Light. She is concerned that few news non-profits are earning significant revenue from subscriptions and rely mostly on donations.

Click here for information about the book and here for a link to the article.

Non-profit journalism is “not just a new way of doing the same old journalism. Instead, it’s a whole new structure based on set of incentives that prioritizes the production of the kind of journalism our democracy needs to function,” Konieczna says.

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

In 2008, when the economic crisis laid waste to news organizations around the world, I was a city hall reporter at the (now closed) Guelph Mercury, a daily newspaper outside of Toronto. I had learned in journalism school that journalism was essential to democracy, and yet, at the Mercury I learned that providing news for a vibrant, diverse and engaged community of 100,000 people was reliant on the ability to sell advertising. Where else could funding for journalism come from? Canadian journalists love the story of a group of grumps who used to meet weekly to complain about their local newspaper and eventually started one of their own, with no business plan and no revenue apart from the $100 each of them put into the middle of the table. I started to wonder if there was a way for this kind of plan to be more broadly implemented.

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

The major economic crisis in news was just unspooling as I was getting started, but the industry had been pointing to financial challenges for a while. At the same time, we had people like Bob McChesney and John Nichols providing a historical argument about why the government should fund news, and Leonard Downie, Jr., and Michael Schudson arguing for a mixed nonprofit-government solution. These two pieces in particular inspired me. At the time, though, we had no ethnographic work to explain what people in nonprofit newsrooms were trying to do, and why, and how it was working out, so I decided to take on that challenge.

What did you learn from your research?

The major takeaway here is that nonprofit news is not just a new business model for doing journalism. Early on in my research, one of the people I interviewed said that they were just doing “old school journalism by old school rules.” This stuck with me. Was it really the case that nonprofit news was just a new funding scheme for doing the same kind of investigative and watchdog reporting journalists had long been doing?

Ultimately, I concluded that there was more going on here. In commercial newsrooms, public service journalism is produced incidentally, as a byproduct of the relationship between advertisers and news organizations. In nonprofit newsrooms, public service journalism is supported directly – funded by foundations that care about democracy, and audience members who care about quality journalism. So, it’s not just a new way of doing the same old journalism. Instead, it’s a whole new structure based on set of incentives that prioritizes the production of the kind of journalism our democracy needs to function. It turns out that these incentives make a big difference.

The major question I set out to address was how nonprofit newsrooms, so tiny and so tenuous, were able to do anything their commercial cousins weren’t. I discovered a new set of journalistic practices centered around collaboration and sharing, which in turn were enabled by the new structure that supports quality journalism, as I described above. By collaborating and sharing across newsrooms, news nonprofits are able to leverage what they do best and have an outsized impact on their news ecosystems. Ultimately, Lucas Graves at the University of Wisconsin and I recognized that what’s happening here is what we called “field repair.” These organizations are working to fix the field of journalism from within, improving the quality of news where the audiences already are.

It’s become increasingly clear to me that the trouble in the news business is not just a result of a failing business model. The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that when the internet gave audiences a choice of where to go for news, many of them opted for sources other than their mainstream local newspaper. The reason for this, as other scholars have described, is that traditional journalism did not do enough to tell the stories that communities said mattered, and to build trust. While the early news nonprofits were focused on finding new ways to produce “old school journalism by old school rules,” today, many of them are acknowledging this gap in trust. As a result, we see projects like City Bureau in Chicago that aim to not just inform and engage but also to equip. We see places like Reveal, that have tried to tell their stories through cartoons on buses. I’ve come to consider this focus on the audience a second revolution in nonprofit news.

What are the implications of your research?

My research has shown how nonprofit news organizations have reconfigured the incentives to create a space in which quality journalism itself has value, instead of being produced incidentally, as a byproduct of the relationship between news organizations and advertisers. Once we realize that this is possible, we can then begin to look for other relationships that support quality journalism directly. Ultimately, this process represents a recommitment to the idea that journalism should serve democracy and begins to address the challenging question of how journalists can make that happen.

This interview conducted by Bill Arthur.

[caption id="attachment_5858" align="alignright" width="300"] Magda Koniecza, assistant professor of journalism at Temple University[/caption]

Journalists and others have begun looking more closely at a nonprofit model for news publications as the business model dependent on advertising revenue has dwindled drastically. Since 2008, nonprofit... -->

Life in a News Desert: Questions with Nick Mathews

Nick Mathews, PhD student in Media Studies at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Minnesota.

The number of failed newspapers and the rise of news deserts in the United States is the wide-angle story. But if you zoom in, you discover how the people who live in those news deserts are coping with the situation. Recent research has shown that residents in news deserts are less likely to vote in local elections, and they often pay more in taxes if there is no reporter covering local governmental meetings. They also experience a loss of social connection, and that’s the story veteran newsman Nick Mathews emphasized in this paper. He interviewed 19 residents of Virginia’s Caroline County, north of Richmond, population 31,000, about what happened when their local newspaper, the Caroline Progress, folded in March 2018 after 99 years of publication, leaving the county without a daily or weekly newspaper.

Mathews is a PhD student in Media Studies at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Minnesota. He previously worked in the newspaper industry for almost 20 years, including time as a senior editor at the Houston Chronicle and as a regional editor-in-chief of a series of daily and weekly newspapers.

Click here for a link to the report.

“Life is harder in Caroline County without the Caroline Progress," -- Caroline County resident.

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

The work from the University of North Carolina Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media played the largest role in this research. It inspired me to research news deserts. Also, I worked in the newspaper industry for almost 20 years. So, once in academia, I wanted to conduct research that demonstrated the importance of a newspaper to its community. The unique aspect of this current study is that it uses the absence of the newspaper to show the importance of the newspaper.

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

Broadly, the work on news deserts was central to my research. For this piece, I used the theoretical framework of Sense of Community developed by David McMillan and David Chavis. The theory examines elements central to a person’s feeling of belonging to a community: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection. I used the theory to see how it related to citizens and their views on the loss of their local newspaper.

What did you learn from your research?  

Most important, the newspaper was missed deeply by its former readers. It was the "heart and soul of the community," one person said.

• Without reporters in the county, residents acted as reporters themselves, often with infuriating results. As one person told me, "If you want to be informed, you can be informed. But it takes a whole lot more on your part to be informed. It’s not easy like it used to be. Life is harder in Caroline County without the Caroline Progress."

• Readers missed news, of course, but the single feature most frequently cited in what was missed from the newspaper was the weekly community events calendar. Notifications about a festival, a high school sporting event or a fish fry were sorely missed. The events connected residents to each other and to the community. "That’s what gave a sense of belonging, you knew what was going on and could participate,” one resident told me. “I think there is a loss of the quality of life, with people not being as close because you don’t have the paper."

What are the implications of your research?

Even though this was a case study on a small, rural Virginia county, I worry this is just an example of hundreds of other news deserts across the country and around the world as economics and the coronavirus pandemic continue to deliver fatal blows to newspaper organizations. That's my greatest fear.

Interview conducted by Bill Arthur.

Rebuilding Trust in the Media: Questions with Anya Schiffrin

Director of technology and media specialization, Columbia University

Accusations of fake news undermine people’s faith in credible reporting. Whom or what organization do you trust these days? Facebook, the local newspaper, cable news, Twitter? In “Bridging the Gap: Rebuilding Citizen Trust in the Media,” Anya Schiffrin, along with colleagues at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, examined how news organizations around the globe are attempting to build bridges with their readers, viewers and listeners and deliver relevant and credible news to local audiences. The report argues that trust in media is related to a range of issues, including economic inequality and political anxieties.

Schiffren is director of technology and media specialization at Columbia and a senior lecturer on global media, innovation and human rights.  For years, she studied investigative reporting, and is editor of Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Reporting from Around the World (New Press, 2014) and African Muckraking: 75 years of Investigative journalism from Africa (Jakana 2017). More recently, Schiffrin has become focused on solutions to the problem of online disinformation on the internet and social media platforms.  This report on bridging the trust gap was done in collaboration with Beatrice Santa-Wood, Ellen Hume, Susanna de Martino and Nicole Pope.

“Now is the time to think big about the problem of trust,” Anya Schiffrin

Click here to read “Bridging the Gap: Rebuilding Citizen Trust in the Media,”

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

           Like many other people I got interested in the question of trust after 2016 when it became central to much of the discussion about how to solve the online mis/disinformation problem. Many of the proposed solutions start from the premise that audiences need to trust the information received from journalism instead of the false information found online.

           There are of course debates about how much trust matters and whether it’s even possible to separate trust in media and susceptibility to disinformation from larger questions about trust in the political system and institutions more generally. I come down on the side of Michael Schudson who published a piece in 2019 arguing that the problems of trust in the media cannot be separated from worries about economic inequality, globalization, and larger political anxieties.

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

             I reviewed a lot of the literature on media trust and credibility for an Oxford Research Encylopedia entry and came to feel that the research is somewhat fragmented and inconclusive. Part of the problem is that trust varies enormously from country to country, (Van Aelst 2017) and part of the problem comes from the fact that the methodologies used for measuring trust are inconsistent. Even so, it’s clear from the literature that the rise of the internet and the social media platforms upended how audiences receive and share information. It’s also clear that this upending affected trust in media. How to address the problem and how to build trust are far less clear. Above all, to what extent can trust be created or rebuilt after it’s been lost?

What did you learn from your research?  

What was different about our research is that we interviewed groups around the world who are trying to build trust in media by engaging with their audiences. We profiled 17 groups. They are mostly small scale, receive some foundation funding and work with niche communities.

Our main findings:

  • Although the groups we surveyed are concerned by the broader phenomena of falling trust in media and media credibility, they are also, by necessity, focused on immediate fixesimportant to their organizations and readerships. Some believe that media credibility depends on engagement with readers. Some place more emphasis on journalism practices, including audience engagement, ethical standards and newsgathering practices.
  • Some outlets and organizations make personal contactwith their audiences. They go into the community, offer trainings and invite readers to contribute to their reporting. Some of our interviewees respond to trolls, but most say that they ignore them.
  • Most of the outlets hope to expand their geographic reach, coverage and activities, but few are financially self-sufficient or have the resources to do so.
  • Several groups said their audience is different from what their founders had originally expected. The reach of the outlets we surveyed is generally not as diverse as they had hoped. Their audiences tend to be educated and urban and, in some cases, include large diaspora communities.
  • The outlets largely cater to niche audiences, but they have broader reach through their online presence and national influence when their stories are picked up by legacy media or other outlets. Sometimes they are able to get on the national agenda (Bristol Cableand GroundUp among others).
  • Many of the organizations do not systematically measure their impact. Some monitor traffic, and one produces an “impact report.”

What are the implications of your research?

Trying to build trust in media is a laudable goal, but the groups we studied are relatively small and their solutions – such as attempting to personally connect with their readers or viewers – might not work with large news organizations. If societies want to promote trust more generally then they will also have to address other problems that lead to polarization – such as economic disparity. Having said that I do think it’s important to make sure communities have reliable sources of information, and I am a big believer in Public Service Broadcasters like the BBC, or Sweden’s public radio, which enjoy high levels of trust. Now is the time to think big about the problem of trust.

- Interview by Bill Arthur

[caption id="attachment_5716" align="alignright" width="257"] Director of technology and media specialization, Columbia University[/caption]

Accusations of fake news undermine people’s faith in credible reporting. Whom or what organization do you trust these days? Facebook, the local newspaper, cable news, Twitter? In “Bridging the Gap: Rebuilding Citizen Trust in... -->

Finding the Money to Keep Going: Questions with Piet Bakker

Piet Bakker

Making enough money to stay in business and pay staff is a continuing problem for many intensely local news entities the world over. Piet Bakker, along with colleagues Clare Cook and Kathryn Geels, examined the operations of 35 hyperlocal publishers in their report Hyperlocal Revenues in the UK and Europe.  The researchers explore whether hyperlocal news organizations are fulfilling a community need with the information they provide and what methods could lead to financial stability.  Surprisingly, they found that even for primarily digital sites often have a print component.

Piet Bakker has worked as a journalist for local and national newspapers, magazines, radio and television. He taught at the school of Journalism in Utrecht and was a researcher and professor at the University of Amsterdam and later at the University of Applied Science in Utrecht. He retired in 2018 and works now as an independent researcher and freelance journalist. 

“The ‘business model,’ however, is free labor, volunteers, unpaid (or underpaid) staff. Few people (on hyperlocal publications) work full-time,” Bakker says.

Click here to read the report.

What are revenue models for hyperlocal entities?

They are extremely mixed and diverse. Revenue comes from advertising, subsidies, branded content, donations. Subscriptions or paying for content is hardly found. Sometimes a cooperation with print seems to bring in revenue. The “business model,” however, is free labor, volunteers, unpaid (or underpaid) staff. Few people work full-time. It also is different in different countries, France and Sweden have some models for government or NGO support. In the United Kingdom and the Netherlands the model is based more (but not alone) on advertising and branded content. 

 

What is the role of advertising for hyperlocal organizations?

That differs between models. Smaller operators don’t seem to have the professional staff to organize that. Models like Google Adwords or bulk advertising bring very little money. The more mature models seem to have a professional person targeting local businesses and securing real advertising contracts. Interpreting data and convincing advertisers is (like journalism), a “real job.” Very few models, however, survive on advertising alone.

 

Is there much of a role for print with hyperlocal media services?

To our surprise, almost half of the models had a print extension (weekly, monthly, yearly) or worked with external parties to produce a print publication. We haven’t researched this in full, but my hunch – after talking to some owners – is that advertisers actually like seeing their ads in print. And print advertising brings in more revenue.  

 

What might be the implications for U.S. media from your research?

The professionalizing of sales would be a good idea. Even if advertising is not your only source, it is a “diverse” source, meaning that losing one or two advertisers does not lead to an immediate disaster -- as with sponsorship or government support. Also, cooperation with print media would be a possibility. As volunteer work and support (tips, ideas, pictures, stories, comments) from the community is still very important, that part of the operation -- although time consuming -- needs attention as well.

This interview conducted by Bill Arthur.

[caption id="attachment_5838" align="alignright" width="200"] Piet Bakker[/caption]

Making enough money to stay in business and pay staff is a continuing problem for many intensely local news entities the world over. Piet Bakker, along with colleagues Clare Cook and Kathryn Geels, examined the operations... -->

What Makes for Strong Local News Coverage? Questions with Sarah Stonbely

Sarah Stonbely, research director at the Center for Cooperative Media

Why do some communities have an abundance of local news coverage, and others don’t? In a forthcoming paper, What Makes for Robust Local News Provision?, Sarah Stonbely, research director at the Center for Cooperative Media in Montclair, N.J., identifies community characteristics that foster local news coverage. Studying hundreds of cities and towns in New Jersey, she found that median household income, population density, municipal spending, and percentage of the population that is Hispanic were statistically significant indicators of the amount of news coverage residents in a community received.

Stonbely, who received her doctorate in political communication, media sociology, and journalism studies from New York University in 2015, has also produced reports on collaborative journalism, the effects on content of changing media ownership, ethnic and community media and also mapped local news outlets serving New Jersey -- found at http://www.newsecosystems.org.

“The findings of this study suggest that the audience-revenue model may not work in low-income communities, and that overreliance on it may foster inequities, as residents who lack disposable income will not be able sustain a news organization. The findings further suggest the need to seriously consider other models to fund local news,” Stonbely says.

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

I became interested in news ecosystems, news deserts, and the structural correlates of news provision in 2011 during a summer fellowship at New America Foundation in the Media Policy Initiative, where I worked with Tom Glaisyer and others on several projects related to defining and understanding local news ecosystems. In 2015, I worked with Phil Napoli on the News Measures Research Project, and it became clear to me that understanding news provision in the holistic way afforded by the ecosystem approach would be key to creating knowledge that could help solve some of the urgent problems journalism faces. The work of Penny Abernathy and her team at the University of North Carolina showing the breadth of the news deserts problem only reinforced this.

What did you learn from your research?  

My analysis of the structural characteristics of local news provision in New Jersey is, to my knowledge, the largest comparative study of its kind. The variables I looked at were median household income, average educational attainment, population density, municipal spending, and demographic makeup. I looked at the relationship between these and the number of local news outlets serving a community for 565 municipalities.

At this scale I was able to conduct meaningful comparative analyses, and found that median household income, population density (characterized as rural, urban, suburban), amount of municipal spending, and percentage of the population that is Hispanic were all statistically significant indicators of the amount of local news coverage. Educational attainment and percentage of the population that is African American were found not to be strongly related to level of coverage.

In addition to the statistical analysis, we mapped every local news outlet serving New Jersey according to coverage area, as well as the structural variables – and this map can be found at http://www.newsecosystems.org/njmap.

What are the implications of your research?

Two findings are the most urgent: the importance of median household income, and municipal spending. The fact that local news provision is positively correlated to median household income has huge implications for the business model of local journalism going forward. Many organizations are successfully cracking the code to audience revenue: NYU’s Membership Puzzle, American Press Institute, and News Revenue Hub, to name just a few. Many local outlets that may have otherwise had to close are now being sustained by audiences who genuinely care and value — and, crucially, are able to pay for — their content. The audience-revenue model has become one of the most hopeful and celebrated ways for local journalism to find sustainability.

However, the findings of this study suggest that the audience-revenue model may not work in low-income communities and that overreliance on it may foster inequities, as residents who lack disposable income will not be able sustain a news organization. The findings further suggest the need to seriously consider other models to fund local news, such as giving individuals cash or tax credits toward news outlet subscriptions, payroll tax relief for journalists’ salaries, and subsidies for small business advertising -- all of which are currently being considered by Congress as part of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, HR 7640. In addition, more philanthropic money could go toward operational costs for news outlets rather than toward projects, as much of it is now.

Second, municipal spending. “Democracy dies in darkness,” as The Washington Post says, and public spending of taxpayers’ money is one of the most important areas in which journalism shines a light. In total, New Jersey municipalities spent $15.1 billion in 2016, the year in which the budget data was gathered. Yet, almost half — $7.4 billion — was spent in municipalities that are covered by zero to two local news originators per capita. This is because seven of the eight communities with the highest municipal spending and the lowest number of local news originators covering them are the largest cities in New Jersey: Newark, Jersey City, Trenton, Paterson, Elizabeth, Atlantic City, and Camden. Note that the Local News Originator measure used here (see methodology, below) does not mean there is zero coverage, it means that the level of coverage is far less than in suburban areas, per capita. Better coverage of urban municipal spending is where journalism-support organizations and philanthropies could directly target money.

What Was Your Methodology?

While sound method is obviously always crucial to a good research project, in this case the method used held even more significance because of its implications for the results. One of the major innovations here, compared to other local news ecosystem mapping projects, is that local news providers are identified not by where their headquarters or newsrooms are based, but rather by the municipalities they say they cover.

To create the dataset of local news providers serving New Jersey, 13 different lists were used, including Cision, Editor & Publisher, and BIA/Kelsey. (Because of New Jersey’s position between New York City and Philadelphia, the lists for those two states were also used). A total of 779 outlets providing local news to New Jersey – defined as multi-sourced, multi-perspective, fact-checked content produced for a public audience – were identified.

Of the 779 total outlets, 683 (88 percent) are physically based in New Jersey, 42 (5 percent) are based in Pennsylvania, primarily Philadelphia, and 35 (5 percent) are based in New York, primarily New York City. This variable shows one way in which this method is different from mapping projects that use the location of an outlet’s studios or headquarters as a proxy for the audience it serves: there are nearly 100 local news outlets serving some part of New Jersey that are based across state lines. Of the 779, roughly 40 percent were newspapers and 35 percent were predominantly online, text-based outlets. For the analyses described above, I focused on those outlets most likely to produce, by their own journalists (original), news about the community it serves (local), on a topic that addresses one of eight critical information needs including stories about local education, local government, and local cultural affairs (This standard for analyzing content – of looking at localism, originality, and coverage of a critical information need – was developed by Phil Napoli). These “local news originators,” as I call them, produce the stories which will, in turn, circulate through a news ecosystem with the help of amplifiers including most television and radio stations and social media.

Though the total number of local news providers serving New Jersey was 779, the total number of mappable outlets was 620, and the total number of mappable local news originators serving New Jersey was 495 (63.5 percent of 779). Some outlets were not mappable because their coverage areas were either not contiguous, were not clearly defined, or they are topic-driven sites; i.e. if an outlet stated vaguely that their coverage area was “the greater tri-state area” (meaning New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey), or if an outlet’s coverage area is not contiguous (“the Filipino population in Northern New Jersey”), or if an outlet’s coverage is topic-driven (environmental issues in New Jersey), the outlet was not mapped and was not included in the structural analysis.

Further, for the analyses, rather than using the raw counts of local news originators per municipality, I weight them per 10,000 capita, to account for the difference in size of municipalities --- standard practice when conducting large comparative analyses of different structural features of communities.


I discuss the methodology at greater length, with citations, in the forthcoming paper.

This interview conducted by Bill Arthur.

[caption id="attachment_5871" align="alignright" width="192"] Sarah Stonbely, research director at the Center for Cooperative Media[/caption]

Why do some communities have an abundance of local news coverage, and others don’t? In a forthcoming paper, What Makes for Robust Local News Provision?, Sarah Stonbely, research... -->

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