Q&A with international local news researcher, Agnes Gulyas

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 local news researchers to discuss recent projects, and how local news research can help journalists, community members, funders and academics understand the challenges facing local news.

Agnes Gulyas (she/her) is a professor in Media and Communications in the School of Creative Arts and Industries at Canterbury Christ Church University in the United Kingdom. She is the co-director of the Centre for Research on Communities and Cultures. Her research focuses on digital transformations, social media and journalism, local media and local communities, media organizations and industries.

CISLM intern Caitlyn Yaede sat down with Gulyas 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?

Agnes Gulyas: I’ve been working on a number of different projects. One looks at local news deserts in 32 European countries. It’s an international comparative project and it’s quite a big project; I’m specifically working on the research part. As part of that, we’re looking at the challenges of local media in those 32 European countries.

It’s really a first in Europe. As you might know, a lot of the literature focuses on Canada, the US, Australia and a bit of the UK. But I think other European countries, especially the small ones, are in a bit of a blind spot. I think it’s a really interesting project. We haven’t finished it, but I think it will help us by providing an international comparison, which I personally feel is lacking in the field. A lot of the research focuses on one country and, even within that country, one region.

There are already some really interesting findings as we try to identify the specific sort of political, cultural, economic and cultural factors that influence the challenges of local media in different countries. There are huge differences, actually, between the countries, but there are some commonalities as well. I think it’s quite an important piece of research.

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

AG: One of the key things (to learn) is about how accessing comprehensive data about local media and sub-national media, in general, is really difficult across the country and in the UK, too — and, to a certain extent, in the US as well. I think it’s important for governments and relevant professional bodies to think about, What data do we have, because we sometimes can’t do a proper assessment of the situation.ut we also can’t assess policy initiatives because there is just not enough data.

The other thing is the importance of collaborative projects, even across different regions within a large country, because I think they highlight where policy initiatives should focus.

Another one, which I’m working on a paper on at the moment, is the emphasis on a subnational ecosystem. One of the issues we find is what we mean by local is pretty much different in every single country that you talk to. So I think we need a common language, especially if you do collaborative research. I think one of the highlights I’m trying to push is using more common terminology and also thinking about subnational media rather than local, which is quite subjective to be honest, depending on the country you’re looking at.

As part of the research project, we also make specific policy recommendations for national governments as well as local and regional authorities.

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

AG: Kristy Hess. She’s been researching local media for a while and she’s had many publications in the area. She worked on one particular project recently on media innovations and local press in Australia and she came to talk at the (International Communication Association conference) in Toronto in May.

She provided a framework of how we can think about local news as a process rather than a snapshot in time. I find this framework quite useful actually – I think that was a useful framework to think about how we can better understand local news deserts.

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?

AG: Well, I’ve been researching it for quite a few years so obviously, for me, it’s the center of my world. But, I do think it matters greatly because it matters greatly to the lives of people. I think historically, a lot of media communication research tends to focus on the national level and talk about national agendas and hasn’t been, in my mind, focused on the sub-national level. Thinking about the particular dynamics and power relations in academic research — a lot of the theories we’ve developed are in relation to national media. There isn’t quite the same fit with the sub-national land local ecosystem.

I think because of the social changes and political changes, the sub-national and the local matters more now than compared to the 20th century where you would have an emphasis on nation-states and what they do. That culture has changed.

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

AG: What excites me is that (local news) is getting more recognition. This is not only the importance of local news but also the challenges it is facing at the moment.

There’s certainly more attention in academic research and policy discussion and that’s exciting. I also think there’s more dialogue between researchers in different countries, even just like this conversation for example. That probably wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. But also, we collaborate more on publications and things like that.

I’m particularly excited to do more comparative research and there is more scope and opportunities than there were, again, maybe 10 years ago, It was really hard and even impossible, to a certain extent.

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

AG: I work on different projects so that helps me not to get bogged down into one, but I think it’s doing collaborative work, not just with other academics, but with policymakers or a research institute. I quite like that.