Q&A with media and politics researcher, Sakshi Bhalla

 Sakshi Bhalla is a doctoral student at the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Bhalla researches how political and media environments interact and intersect with each other. Bhalla is currently studying news circulation and how this visually represents and influences the success, or lack of, local news outlets.

CISLM Intern Shea McIntyre interviewed Sakshi Bhalla via email. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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

Sakshi Bhalla: Local news faces many challenges, and the idea of “local” lies at the heart of many of them. It is more than just a point on the map; it embodies diverse cultural, social, political and economic dimensions that shape community and cohesion. Understanding the layers of what constitutes “local” is crucial for addressing the health of local news ecosystems.

So my project aims to consider local newspaper circulation by examining spatial patterns and identifying factors that influence them — essentially thinking about, How local is local news circulation? Circulation, or lack thereof, is fundamental here. Circulation patterns reflect not only geographic reach but also the level of engagement, relevance of local newspapers within their communities and its extent. Ultimately, the goal is to contribute to a deeper understanding of why local newspapers thrive (or don’t) within their communities, hopefully providing insights for stakeholders invested in the sustainability of local news ecosystems.

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

SB: My project focuses on the importance of contextual understanding in examining newspaper use. While past approaches have primarily focused on availability, I want to highlight the dynamic and shifting nature of media consumption and its relationship with social structures such as location. So, what I hope becomes a takeaway from this project is the continued importance of contexts as well as a focus on social structures which shape media consumption.

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

SB: I find myself going back to Matt Hindman’s assessment of local news (in his book The Internet Trap) quite a lot. It contextualizes the structures of news consumption, especially local news, within the usage dynamics of the web ecosystem. I find that framework and approach super useful. I quite enjoyed the recent issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science focussing on information needs in a democracy (editor’s note: Featuring CISLM’s own, Jessica Mahone!)

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?

SB: Individuals’ information needs, motivations and uses are peculiar. In general, we know that most people tend to remain uninformed about global events unless those events have a direct impact on their lives or interests socially or politically. What underlies this concept of rational ignorance is the significance of proximity in news consumption. Essentially, individuals are more likely to engage with news that is close to them and personally relevant to their lives. Local news does exactly that.
So, when we dig into the dynamics of local news or where it’s hitting some rough patches, we can really get a sense of what individuals consider important when it comes to staying informed, and perhaps even what being informed even means.

CISLM: What’s your first memory of interacting with local news?

SB: Back home in India, I remember grabbing the local supplement of the national newspaper we subscribed to (The Times of India), scanning through for the fun bits about events at my high school or what was happening around town. It was a thrill to spot yourself in the paper after a great day at the lake, especially when they covered local recreation.

When I moved to the US, I was fascinated by those newspaper boxes you never see back home. But it was kind of disappointing to find most of them empty – which just brings home the challenges print media is facing. Still, it was uplifting to see papers like The Beacon in Virginia pushing through and staying accessible in these very ways. Or, even The Hill – to the extent that you can call it a “local paper.” Makes you think about locality and context of consumption, doesn’t it!

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

SB: Innovation in local news delivery is in a very interesting space right now. While the evolving media landscape has brought the news landscape in particular so many challenges, I am excited by some recent experiments in the public media space. I’m particularly intrigued by the recent merger between the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ. It’s a bold move that could potentially reshape the local news scene in Chicago and beyond. I’m excited to see how this collaboration unfolds and what it means for the future of local media.

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

SB: I try to be organized, sigh! I memo and to-do list quite a lot, which helps me organize my workflow a fair bit without getting overwhelmed. I’ve also very recently taken up painting, which has become something to look forward to at the end of the day.

Are you a researcher, either academic or of the practice, who studies 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.