Q&A with local news researcher, Asa Royal

 Asa Royal is an Associate in Research at DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University, where he studies disinformation, digital platforms, and media/journalism institutions. Asa graduated from Duke in 2019, after interning for the Tampa Bay Times and working for the Duke Reporter’s Lab. Post-graduation, he spent a year in D.C. working as a software engineer before returning to campus in October 2020.

CISLM intern Twumasi Duah-Mensah interviewed Royal via phone. 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

Asa Royal: A couple of years back, we (at the DeWitt Wallace Center) looked at the rise of these, what are called pink slime outlets. These are essentially hyperlocal publications that purport to publish local news, but in fact, don’t have local reporters and generally hired contracted reporters from all around the world to write articles with a conservative-leaning slant. We hypothesize that these outlets kind of poisoned local news ecosystems and reduced trust in local newspapers.

We mostly looked at the operations of these pink slime outlets, and we found that they kind of masquerade as local news sites—they have this veneer of reporting local news. They might have stories about a high school football coach at a local school, and those will adorn the front page. But every so often, they will publish these rabidly hyper-partisan stories about the election being stolen, and these are mixed into the veneer of local news. We think about it as a poison pill that’s just snuck into stuff. I think overall, the effect of these things being present reduces trust in local news, because it adopts the veneer of local news but it’s obviously just low quality stuff.

These are widespread, they’re all over the country. They’re especially concentrated in what we think of as political battleground states. And you see real weird effects of that. For example, during the 2020 election, you’ll probably remember (seeing) that after Joe Biden won the election, Donald Trump said ‘hey, no actually (Biden) didn’t win.’ And there was this intense campaign—especially in a few states—to basically overturn the results and lobby legislators to throw away mail-in ballots. And you would see lobbying for those efforts filtered or laundered through these pink slime outlets.

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

AR: Many local papers, when they caught wind of these hyper-partisan local outlets, would write up a story in their paper saying, “hey, here’s this new outlet that’s publishing stories. Here’s a look at a couple of their stories, and here’s why this outlet should be disregarded.” I think that’s really, really helpful. The thing that makes it tough, though, is that there are thousands of these outlets and the cost of opening one of these outlets for one of these organizations is really, really minimal. It’s just registering a website, adopting some generic name like North Raleigh News or Chapel Hill Observer, putting the website online, and then just publishing whatever they like.

You’re kind of always playing Whack-a-Mole with these outlets. I think there are very, very few people who frequent these outlets. Nobody would turn to one of these as their daily source of news. But I think where they get traction is probably social media. So if you can find a viral-enough story—like something about school boards that you know is going to catch fire on Twitter—and you publish a story with some sort of local news outlet sounding name, and you share the link to Twitter and you have this news story that says “School Board Overturning Will of Parents.” It goes viral on Twitter, people see it on Twitter, think, “hey, this is local news, local news sites (are a) trustable source” and tend to believe this story. And that’s kind of hard to play whack-a-mole (against), but it’s not really clear how you tamp down the spread of that story and what local journalists can do to fix that issue.

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

AR: There were two studies that ran experiments giving out free local news subscriptions to people. One of these (was conducted) in Pennsylvania. They gave out free subscriptions to the Pittsburgh (Post-Gazette) and the Philadelphia Inquirer to folks living in local counties. Another of these experiments gave out free (digital subscriptions) of The (Raleigh) News and Observer to people in Chatham County. Researchers tried to look at (the effect of) how giving out subscriptions. Would people who got these subscriptions use them to read news? Would it change their political opinions if they were actually reading news? And they found, essentially, that almost nobody used the subscriptions and for those that did use the subscriptions, there were no real changes in political opinions. But I think the really striking finding was that people were given free subscriptions and nobody really used them, which showed what I think is a really tricky problem: there’s a lack of demand for local news as we know it. A little bit of a bummer, but I think those studies were really striking and should be talked about more.

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?

AR: A prerequisite to a working functional national democracy is a set of working functional local democracies. So that means that we have democratic elections at a local level and that people are engaged in those elections at a local level. And I think it is very, very, very, very hard to have an engaged populace who’s voting in informed ways in local elections if they don’t know what’s going on. I think it is very, very hard to know what’s going on if there are no newspapers. You can see this in Durham. We have the Durham Herald-Sun, but it very, very, very rarely publishes anything about elections, anything about politicians, anything about local politics. So come election time, I imagine that it’s very, very difficult for people to make informed decisions on whom to vote for. I think that makes it really, really easy to just look at a candidate and say, “oh, well, you know, they say the right words, so I will vote them in.” I think it makes informed democratic decision-making really, really hard. Who knows? Maybe that undermines the national level of democracy if people aren’t practicing it well at the local level.

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

AR: If the old contracts between local news publishers and would-be consumers of local news is broken, I think we are now at the point where everybody realizes it’s broken. And I think that means that we now have a chance to renegotiate what that contract looks like and for news publishers to figure out a way to give people what it is that they want, because clearly, the contract didn’t work. You built a product that you couldn’t give away. And I think that’s what those Pennsylvania and Chatham County studies showed. So I think everybody realizes we need a new contract. As for what the contract looks like, I don’t really know. There are lots of hypotheses as to what it looks like. For example, there was this thing published (a year) ago called “The Roadmap for Local News,” which essentially stated that the contract between local news publishers and the would-be consumers is broken. You need to figure out a way to give people what they want and focus on community information needs. So I guess it’s exciting to see people orienting around that—figuring out what community information needs are and figuring out how to build a product that fulfills them.

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

AR: Usually, I will sit on my exercise bike or my apartment’s exercise bike and I will hold a book in front of my face and read. I probably look like (I’m) about to fall off the bike, but I really, really enjoy it. It just lets me escape to a whole different world. The biking puts me in a trance, I got my book there — so yeah.

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