Clay Williams brings journalism background to local news research

By Katelyn Chedraoui

For Clay Williams, the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media’s research team is the ideal combination of his two areas of interest: journalism and research.

As a first-year master’s student at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Williams is pursuing an M.A. in media and journalism with a focus on research and theory. This pivot to research came after he completed an undergraduate degree in journalism at Virginia Tech and participated in a media production program offered at his high school.

For Williams, this felt like a natural next step, one that came with more freedom to pursue research questions about topics he had been interested in while in journalism. Now on the research and theory track, Williams is able to design research projects aimed at answering these questions.

Joining CISLM was another natural fit between these two realms.

“I wanted to keep my journalistic roots and see what is happening in the field these days,” Williams said. “Journalism is in a very interesting place now in terms of sustainability, especially at the local level.”

Since joining CISLM in October 2022, Williams has worked on several projects, many of which are still underway. Williams’ most recent work with CISLM has been focused on the newly released News and Information Census of North Carolina local news outlets.

“Clay has been a tremendous addition to the research team at CISLM,” said Jessica Mahone, research director at CISLM. “His work on the News and Information Census, particularly in writing the literature review and methods sections, shows a thoughtfulness and enthusiasm for this work that is not only valuable but makes him a great person to work with.”

Williams was also recently a panel moderator at the Local News Researchers Workshop cohosted by CISLM and Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. His panel was centered around local news audiences’ needs and behaviors.

“(Clay) doesn’t get discouraged easily and isn’t afraid of hard work,” said Professor Rhonda Gibson, Williams’ advisor in the Hussman school. “Even though it’s only his first year in the master’s program, he already has two papers accepted at academic conferences, which is amazing and reflects his work ethic. He jumps right into projects without fear.”

Williams’ research areas of interest include studying media effects on LGBTQ+ populations, particularly looking at the way social media influences the way media impacts people. Williams was recently awarded a grant from Hussman School’s ABIDE (Access, Belonging, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity) committee, which he will use in a project studying the impact of stereotypes of gay male characters in entertainment media on gay male viewers.

“Clay is eager to learn, inquisitive about digging deeper, and outstanding at making the connections between ideas to put the puzzle together,” said Professor Megan Duncan, Williams’ previous advisor at Virginia Tech. “He has great instincts about what would be an interesting research idea, and great ability to learn the skills it takes to execute the idea. I love to see all the ways ideas he had as an undergrad are growing into conference-quality work — and work that is important to our discipline as well as the people it concerns.”

CISLM’s emphasis on making research accessible to people who need it was appealing to Williams. Being part of a team whose research is primarily for public audiences has been a great opportunity to learn how to make research useable, especially, as Williams pointed out, when it can lead to research-driven solutions to the journalism industry’s challenges.

“One reason I enjoy working at CISLM is to learn a different side of academia,” he said. “Even though it’s still research, I started to learn how to write a little bit differently so that way, anyone who comes across our website, regardless of whether or not they have an academic background, can understand what the study was and what we learned.”