Q&A with local news propositions researcher, Volha Kananovich

Dr. Volha Kananovich is a Digital Journalism Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Appalachian State University. Her specialties include political communication, computational social studies and internal communication. Kananovich’s most recent publication concentrated on “Online memes on Anti-American propaganda and the ‘silent majority’ in support of authoritarian populism in Putin’s Russia.”

Currently, Kananovich is working on a project researching the appeals and propositions of local news outlets to possible donors and subscribers, to be published. Kananovich’s research explores the efficacy of local news marketing strategies.

CISLM Intern Shea McIntyre interviewed Dr. Volha Kananovich 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?

Dr. Volha Kananovich: This is actually the project I just presented at the (Local News Researchers’ Workshop, co-hosted by CISLM and Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center). It’s my project where we — myself and my research assistant, Cat Chapman — started by realizing the dire condition (that) local newspapers are in. We know that local news outlets are disappearing, the ad revenue is dropping and the two alternative sources of revenue, subscriptions and donations from citizens, are getting more attention from news organizations and from scholars.

We wanted to see exactly how local newspapers bring their propositions to potential donors and subscribers when they appeal for their financial support. We analyzed more than 1,300 appeals for donations or subscriptions. We know that you can (see) these when you pop onto a local newspaper’s site. We wanted to see how well and to what extent those local newspapers make the case for being these civically and democratically pivotal institutions, that we as scholars know they are. But we weren’t sure how well they made it clear to their potential financial supporters.

We also wanted to see whether they leverage principles of persuasion that we know make an act of persuasion effective based on marketing research. Usually, (the field of ) journalism studies (does) not borrow many concepts from strategic communications research, but this is one that we felt was logical as any appeal for donation is an act of persuasion by itself, so you can apply these principles and see how they work.

It turned out that local newspapers tend to underutilize those spaces – by spaces, I mean those local appeals – they did not make a clear and strong case for why they matter. We found that slightly more than 20%, or more than 1 out of 5 appeals, evoked the function of informing the public. You would think that they would emphasize how they keep communities updated.

That’s not what we saw.

We saw even fewer (news organizations) talk about how they cultivate this sense of community, how they make those community ties stronger, how they have investigative structures and how they keep people in power accountable. It appears that the functions that are clear to us as journalism scholars did not make their way to these more public-facing types of communication. We also found that they do not do a good job of leveraging those principles of persuasion as well. It appears that some of the assumptions we have about how newspapers will (communicate) with their communities are not necessarily supported when you take a closer look at how they actually engage community people in those forms of communication.

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

VK: Our findings, which are not very reassuring about how (the news organizations) are communicating with their potential donors and subscribers, also suggest that there’s a lot of room for improvement. There’s an opening for us as journalism scholars who are trained in doing systematic research coming up with theoretically informed ideas and then testing them empirically – there’s a space for us to come in and offer our help to local newsrooms in terms of adjusting the way that they communicate to the communities that they serve. I’m looking at it optimistically, and the lesson learned is that there’s stuff to be done but there are instruments available to us, and we can leverage (them).

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

VK: There were quite a few projects presented at the workshop. One stood out to me in particular because it provided appealing evidence for what we expect to happen when newsrooms do their job well . This was a project that was presented by Steven Jefferson who founded Bloom Labs, an organization that helps local newsrooms geotag their stories. So, geotagging) really means they get to track what kind of communities they cover in their stories. They will look at whether local newsrooms cover communities consistently or inconsistently.

What (Bloom Labs) found is that regions that get consistent coverage engage more (on the coverage). And this consistent local journalism also tends to lead to greater subscription rates. So if a community sees itself being covered consistently, it reciprocates by supporting those local newsrooms. So that was very interesting evidence that speaks to the importance of being consistent, in building trust with your audiences through doing the work at the community level and not practicing parachute journalism.

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?

VK: ​​I will start by saying what is the bigger theme of my research: my research agenda revolves around the question of how news media help people make sense of, and also act out their citizenship.

Local journalism is an integral part of this ecosystem in which we exist as citizens; it is integral to helping us make connections to what’s going on at the community level, to make sense of what our citizens are doing, what they believe, how our elected officials do their job and how well they do their job. As voters, as taxpayers, as neighbors, (local news) also helps us make sense of what other stakeholders are doing and how we can forge connections with them. It’s almost logical that I cannot overlook local journalism in my research.

All this together makes a compelling case that local journalism deserves a systematic, consistent look from us as researchers.

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

VK: There are two things. The presence of people in communities who do journalism. Despite all the challenges that they face, this is a vibrant world in terms of the number of people who are thinking through those issues, looking for solutions, getting together and finding ways to address those issues. This gives me a lot of hope.
And the fact that there are scholars who recognize the need to study it and also offer solutions. A lot of studies that were presented at the workshop were very actionable. Those were studies that thought to provide advice that journalism organizations could put to use right away.

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

VK: My family, which reminds me about the importance of human connection and that our community starts with the people who are closest to us, which is our family. I love spending time with my family a lot. Trying to compensate for the long hours that I spend doing other things.

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.

Correction: We previously published the wrong title; Dr. Kananovich is an assistant professor. We have updated this article to reflect her correct title.