Q&A with Australian local news researcher, Kristy Hess

Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy and the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM) hosted the Local News Researchers Workshop Feb. 16 and 17 in Chapel Hill. Before and after the conference, which was supported by Democracy Fund, CISLM reached out to a selection of the researchers attending to discuss recent projects, and how local news research can help journalists, community members, funders and academics understand the challenges facing local news.

Kristy Hess (she/her) is a professor at Deakin University’s School of Communication and Creative Arts. She researches the relationship between journalism, place-making and social order, in both local and digital settings. She received her B.A. from Deakin University and her doctorate of philosophy from the University of South Australia. She is currently the chief investigator of two research projects funded by the Australian Research Council.

CISLM intern Caitlyn Yaede sat down with Lindgren via Zoom for the following interview.

Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media: What’s a recent research project you’ve done that has helped us understand the challenges facing local news?

Kristy Hess: I’m working on a project that’s funded by the Australian Research Council in conjunction with Country Press Australia. They are the association that represents about 200 independently owned newspapers in the country. These are small-town, often suburban newspapers, that aren’t owned by bigger corporations, like, for example, News Corp (not affiliated with CPA).

That project was looking, in the first instance, at a media innovations agenda, but also factors that influence sustainability. It was a three-year study involving a lot of different research. There was a Ph.D. project attached. We did a national audience survey of people who actively read local news, a survey of non-readers via social media and dozens and dozens of interviews with news proprietors, journalists, editors and also those who have been in the business for a very long time — the ones that have been part of family dynasties for over a hundred years. Sometimes they’re discounted in a digital media innovations agenda, but being able to look back on what has succeeded over time was an important part of our study.

CISLM: What should non-academics — local journalists or civically engaged community members — learn from that research?

KH: There are a number of different things you can take away from the research. If we look at audiences for a minute, what we have been able to ascertain is that there is an absolute demand for local news in Australia.

People want it, but people have been a little bit disillusioned by what they’re getting when it comes to local news. They’re not stupid. They recognize syndicated content when they see it. So, there’s certainly a demand. We did find from that audience survey that, in Australia, people are very passionate about reading print — picking up a paper and engaging with news that way.

We found that, in digital space, if people wanted quality news, they were going straight to the source. For that, they would go directly to a local newspaper website over social media and local government authorities. That’s important because, in Australia, obviously a lot of content is shifting to socials.

CISLM: What’s a recent research project in local news that you admire?

KH: I’ve quite enjoyed engaging with April Lindgren at (Toronto Metropolitan University). I think she’s got some really dynamic ideas and I think her suggestion at a recent conference about librarians playing a role in helping to audit what exists out there in broader ecologies is a fantastic idea.

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?

KH: Local news research is so important because it’s very distinct from big media. I think that big media has a lot to learn from small media. There’s no doubt that local news matters to a healthy democracy and that it shapes, influences and builds the social fabric of communities. I think we are all in agreeance with that, and it’s probably time to move beyond that conversation to look at what are the solutions and how do we build diversity in the sector.

CISLM: What excites you about the future of local news?

KH: That there are passionate people out there. Also, when a news outlet closes down, by and large, there’s always something that pops up in its place. And I think that’s really exciting. The question is: How do we support that type of news that’s building from the grassroots?

A new project that I’m working on at the moment is another Australian Research Council linkage grant, and this time it’s working with the public broadcaster, ABC, looking at what they can do to work with existing news providers to support really vulnerable areas of Australia’s local news ecology. There’s no one big solution for every country on the globe — it’s always quite context specific. Nonetheless, we can learn from each other.

CISLM: What helps you get through a long day of work?

KH: The people. There have been so many people who are passionate and have a lot to say about local news. Also, the fact that I live and work in a regional community — that passion for regions and life outside big cities is probably what inspires me most every day.

Are you a researcher, either academic or of the practice, who’s studying local news? Join our Local News Researcher Community, a peer group that meets every month to discuss upcoming, in-progress and recently published projects. Sign up here to join this group.