Q&A with local news ecosystem researcher, Courtney Tabor

 Courtney Tabor is an incoming Postdoctoral Researcher at Vrije University Brussels in Brussels, Belgium. Tabor is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Eastern Oregon University and has conducted research examining media and politics in relation to the criminal justice system.

CISLM intern Serena Sherwood interviewed Courtney Tabor via Zoom. 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?

Courtney Tabor: I am currently working on a project with Dr. Regina Lawrence at the University of Oregon. We’ve done a couple of projects on local news ecosystems but right now we’re looking at which ecosystem projects have already been done, where in the United States we have done these kinds of local news ecosystem analyses — basically trying to understand with local news ecosystems, what news is (out) there, what news is missing, what areas are being or aren’t being covered. In our project, we’re looking at what states have been covered, what cities have been covered and what counties have been covered. Also, what (types of media) did they look at? Are they just looking at newspapers, are they looking at radio and television, other forms of where people can get news? Do they look at the ownership – who owns the news in their locality – or what kinds of languages are covered in the ecosystem? Essentially, we’re looking at the state of the local news ecosystem (studies).

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

CT: There’s a real lack of ecosystem analyses across the overwhelming majority of the United States, and it would be great to be able to fill in a lot of those blanks. If we have researchers that are open to doing it, I know Dr. Lawrence and I are open to helping them! (Four) of the most populated states in America — California, Texas, New York and Florida — none of them have ecosystem analyses done, thus far. We’re missing big swaths of people’s news consumption.

We’ve done a lot of counting the numbers of local news systems, which unfortunately is almost obsolete as soon as it’s published, but it would be great to know more about the characteristics of our news. Who owns them? What kinds of languages do they serve? What kinds of communities do they serve? Right now, we mostly just know how many there are and maybe where they’re located.

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

CT: There are some really great organizations like the Listening Post Collective that are out there talking to people about what news they (engage with). A lot of the work that’s been done has focused on the production side of what news is being produced, and while important, it’s not so important if no one’s reading it, or if they can’t access it, they can’t get what they need out of it. This side of the local news ecosystem focuses on communities’ information needs and talks directly with community members and does more of that qualitative research. I think it is very exciting and I think this is where we’re going to get some of the information about things like languages and ownership and demographics.

I do really admire the work that (Russell Hansen and others) are doing at the University of Washington, going to the statehouse in Washington and talking with reporters. They’ve actually learned that most of them are journalism students. Their work is still in progress, but I do really, really admire the work they’re doing in Washington.

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?

CT: Local news is our first defense against corruption in politics and democratic backsliding, against misinformation. I think the state of local news right now is in crisis and not just because we’re missing a lot of it, but also the quality of journalism that’s being produced in local newspapers is to be desired. Local news is how you find out what’s happening in your community.

For example, here in La Grande, Oregon, we just had a pretty extreme policy pass in the La Grande City Council — people need to know when things happen in their city. We have a pretty limited local news landscape here in La Grande, so there (are) not really a lot of places to learn about what happens in your city council. Because local news is so important, local news research is also so important. Understanding what our local news landscape is will help us better support high-quality and robust local news journalism in the future.

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

CT: I’m excited about how many people are studying it, how many people are taking up the charge — they’re seeing the importance of local news and wanting to fund it and research it and advocate for it. I feel excited about seeing more and more pieces of legislation that (support) local news.

Here in Oregon, we had (a bill) recently, and while it got tabled, just having it be something that people are talking about in the state legislature will help boost it the next time we try to get this legislation going. I’m excited that the conversation is definitely happening and people are recognizing this crisis in local journalism and really trying to mobilize and do something about it.

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

CT: Lately, I’ve been really addicted to playing Hades on my Switch. But, usually we have a monthly pub trivia at the brewery in town here, (and) me and a couple of the other newer faculty members in this city have a team — our team name is “Last Place.” Every time we go to trivia, we win, which is ironic, but also very cool and fun. There’s always something to look forward to as things get tough during the term.

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.