Q&A with Canadian local news researcher, April Lindgren

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.

April Lindgren (she/her) is the principal investigator for the Local News Research Project at Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Journalism, where she is also a professor of journalism. Lindgren led the creation of the Local News Map, a crowd-sourced database tracking the success of local news organizations in Canada. She also launched the Local News Data Hub in 2021, a study-industry collaboration to connect Canadian newsrooms with data-based stories.

Lindgren received her bachelor’s from Carleton University diplôme in international relations from the Graduate School of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.

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?

April Lindgren: I’m working on a project looking at news philanthropy in Canada, where it’s much less developed than it is in the United States, for instance. The idea of this project is to investigate best practices from other jurisdictions and lessons learned so that as philanthropic initiatives related to journalism increase in Canada, we can avoid making some of the same mistakes and embrace some of the best practices that have been tried in other jurisdictions.

So, we’re looking at different models that might work in Canada that have been successful elsewhere. We’re looking at concerns and issues that have been highlighted so that we can perhaps avoid making those same mistakes as well here. The idea is to produce this document to inform both funders and news organizations.

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

AL: One of the initial takeaways is that funders in Canada and news organizations in Canada are still pretty unfamiliar with the idea of philanthropic support for journalism. I’m actually working with a foundation and we’re producing a series of educational materials. The first materials are just being released and they’re examples of five case studies where a news organization has received philanthropic support in Canada, just to illustrate to both funders and the news organizations what the possibilities are.

This next phase will be to work on a fact sheet for funders so that foundations that have never before thought about supporting journalism can have a look at what they might be getting into, and why supporting journalism is good for their other projects that relate to community wellbeing. It isn’t just about saving journalism, per se. We are working with two philanthropic associations in the second phase.

The third part will be to do something similar with the Canadian Association of Journalists to take the message to journalists about what it means to work with a funder, what some of the models might be and how to think about where to look for money in not all the usual places. Because there aren’t actually that many foundations that are supporting journalism in Canada.

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

AL: Phil Napoli‘s work (at Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy) has been very influential. I’ve drawn on it a lot in my research. His methodologies for creating inventories of local news and evaluating and assessing the health of local news ecosystems has been useful and helpful to me in a variety of ways.
For instance, the project that we’re just about to launch — looking at the characteristics of communities that have lost or gained a local news source — draws on some of his work on characteristics of different kinds of neighborhoods and communities that have, more or less, vibrant local, local news ecosystems.

I should also say Nikki Ushers’ work on who benefits and who is left out of journalism is also (inspiring). I look to their work a lot.

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?

AL: I believe it matters because local news performs a community-building function. It brings people together and gives them a shared information base on which to think about and understand what’s happening in their communities. It gives them the information they need to act politically if they want to engage and become involved in a decision. It gives them enough information to cast an informed vote and it holds power accountable while other people are going about living their lives and doing their jobs and raising their kids. Somebody is keeping an eye on what’s happening to the politically powerful in those communities.

I think that local journalism is really important for those reasons. Also, I can’t overstate the importance of having a source of verified, timely news that’s produced independently without the influence of any particular interest so that people don’t have to fall victim to misinformation and misleading information.

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

AL: I’m really interested to see the potential for — in our context in Canada — philanthropy to take on a greater role. Right now, we actually only have nine news organizations (in Canada) that have gone through the process of being certified as charities so that they can issue tax receipts when somebody gives them a donation.
Right now, funders and news organizations are finding workarounds but it’s still kind of complicated. I do think that there’s the potential for philanthropy to play a greater role in supporting journalism, not just as a revenue source — although, in a small news organization, it can make a difference there — but it can also provide money so that news outlets can engage in what I think of as repair. Maybe it is hiring that additional young journalist who makes the newsroom more diverse or creating a series of stories that’s available for free to people. So, if you can’t pay, you’re not locked out of access to that story. Or, it might be providing training for young journalists to become more engaged and to up their skills as investigative or data journalists.

The other thing I’m really interested in, and is kind of related, is the potential for collaboration amongst newsrooms so that, in a world where we can have three or four pretty weak local news operations in a community, I think there’s potential for them to set aside this, “We beat you by 26 seconds on this story and getting it posted online” (mentality) to work on a collaborative project in the public interest. And it could be anything from solutions to the opioid crisis to why can’t the city keep transit running on time to what are we gonna do about the run on food banks because people don’t have enough to eat?

I think there’s the potential for newsrooms to pool their limited resources to focus on doing, initially, one project together, but then also looking for other ways to collaborate to produce journalism that is more useful, engaging, helpful or consequential for communities.

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

AL: Well, I like research. I approach it like journalism, except it’s better paid and the deadlines aren’t as tight, and it means I can dig deeper. I was very happy doing journalism and I’m very happy doing research that is thinly disguised journalism – it is basically journalism on a bit of steroids.

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.