Q&A with Local News Researcher Damian Radcliffe

Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy and the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM) are hosting the Local News Researchers Workshop next week in Chapel Hill. In preparation for the conference, supported by Democracy Fund, CISLM reached out to a selection of the researchers attending to discuss recent projects, and why local news research can help journalists, community members, funders and academics understand the challenges facing local news

Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism, a Professor of Practice in the School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) at the University of Oregon. He is also a Fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, an Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies, and a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

An experienced digital analyst, consultant, journalist and researcher, Radcliffe has worked in editorial, research, policy and teaching positions for the past two decades in the UK, Middle East and U.S., including roles in all media sectors (commercial, public, government, regulatory, academic and nonprofit/civil society) and all platforms (print, digital, TV and radio). He writes about digital trends, social media, technology, the business of media, and the evolution of journalism.

CISLM intern Katelyn Chedraoui sat down with Radcliffe via Zoom for the following interview.

Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media: What is a recent research project that you’ve done that has helped us understand the challenges facing local news?

Damian Radcliffe: I think the example I would want to highlight is a study that I did for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and published in Columbia Journalism Review, which was based on a survey of people working at local newspapers across the US. We had 324 people respond to this survey, and it really looked at what their day-to-day life looked like, what were some of the kinds of opportunities and challenges that they saw in that in that sector. And because this was conducted back in the summer of 2020, it was also at the height of COVID. So it was also a really great opportunity to check the temperature, and see what the impact of COVID had been on reporters, not just in terms of the business model and the challenges that threw up, which of course, are well known, but also just in terms of how that had changed their day to day work in terms of the stories they were covering, how they were covering it, whether they felt they were getting adequate access to things like PPE and so forth. So I thought that was a really important story to tell.

And it was a follow-up from a study that I had conducted in late 2016, so (it) also asked some of the same questions to people working in the same sector, so that offered some interesting points of commonality, as well in terms of being able to see some changes over time.

And I think the other thing that was really important as part of that study was that we also asked some questions about diversity, equity and inclusion and how newsrooms perceived how good a job they thought they were doing in terms of the makeup of their own newsroom across a wide variety of different metrics, and also how that manifested itself in coverage as well. That showed that with local newspapers, there were a lot of challenges in terms of understanding the breadth and complexity of the DEI landscape and the challenges of being able to kind of over overcome that. I think it was really important for us to shine a light on that.

CISLM: What is one sort of main takeaway that you got from that study that you think is important for local journalists or community members to know?

I often feel there is a disconnect between the conversations we might be having as researchers, as academics, even kind of top-level industry conferences and so forth, versus the reality of what’s happening on the ground.

DR: The overwhelming thing that was very striking from the 300+ respondents was the lack of faith in a commercial model for local news. Overwhelmingly, people felt that the commercial business model was dead. That they were the people who were working at commercial entities, they were very critical about the kind of lack of investment, about owners essentially kind of squeezing, squeezing newsrooms, and to some extent, bleeding them dry, still seeking historic levels of profit margins in a completely different landscape. And so there was a lot of criticism about the commercial environment.

But that was offset by an optimism about the future for nonprofit media as potentially being the way forward. So that was really, really interesting to see because that’s the kind of conversation that we see a lot on panels and in policy papers and so forth.

But I’m always curious to see well, how that does that thinking permeate down to what’s happening at the grassroots and what’s happening on the shop floor? I often feel there is a disconnect between the conversations we might be having as researchers, as academics, even kind of top-level industry conferences and so forth, versus the reality of what’s happening on the ground. So it was really interesting to see that there was this enthusiasm for the potential for nonprofits and a desire to find out more.

CISLM: So what is a recent research project in local news that you admire, meaning work that somebody else has done that you find really interesting?

DR: I’d like to highlight two, if I may. I’m just wrapping up a project on community-centered journalism for the Agora Journalism Center, based out of our Portland campus at the University of Oregon. That is currently in the editing stages, and I’m actually going to be previewing some of the findings from the conference. But as part of that, I dived into Andrea Wenzel’s 2020 book “Community Centered Journalism.” And it was terrific.

One of the things that was really striking to me was just how colorful it was, what great stories they were in there, what great sense of character of many of the kinds of people and situations and settings that she was describing. And I think that reflects the fact that Andrea, for a long time was a journalist and a very good journalist. And she really brings those storytelling sensibilities to her work.

Although the book is about a framework for community-centered journalism and how sort of some of the tensions between that method of working and traditional journalistic norms, it’s a very — I mean, this is the highest possible compliment — It’s an easy read. It’s not wrapped up too much in in theory, it’s incredibly accessible. And it was just really fantastic to read something that I found just so engaging from the get-go, just full of great stories, great characters and really situated her arguments in real life settings with people that I either knew or projects that I knew or have started to become familiar with, or that I could really picture because of the veracity of her writing, so that was really great.

And then the other (project) I wanted to point to was actually some work by my colleagues, Regina Lawrence and others at the Agora Journalism Center, who at the end of last year, wrote a report on information needs and the communications landscape in Oregon. And this was really, I think, a significant and important piece of work, because it looks at the landscape in terms of what’s happening in our own backyard.

I believe it’s really important for universities, particularly publicly funded universities, to understand the landscape of the ecosystem that they are a part of, to incorporate that as part of their research.

And I believe it’s really important for universities, particularly publicly funded universities, to understand the landscape of the ecosystem that they are a part of, to incorporate that as part of their research. And to then also try to be part of the solution to remedying whatever some of the issues are that have emerged.

And it was really striking for me, going through this to see the level of news and information deserts that there are in Oregon. There are a couple of counties, for example, that have no local base news that originates from within those counties, only kind of wider statewide media, and also seeing the kind of emergence of some of the digital players that are in this space that are trying to address some of those gaps that traditional media have left behind.

CISLM: All right. So here’s the big question, the one that has no right or wrong answer, but probably a very long one. In your opinion, why does local news research matter? Why should we do it? Why should we fund it? What is the purpose of it?

DR: I’m actually going to try and give you a really concise answer on it compared to some of my other more verbose ones. I mean, I think the importance of local news is well-documented. You know, we know that without local journalism, people are less likely to vote, people are less likely to vote differently down the ticket, the cost of City Hall goes up without accountability reporting, that communities feel less bound together, much less sense of community, without local news outlets telling their stories and reflecting their lives back to them. So we know all of this.

But what we need is an evidence base to show how this is changing and, sadly in many cases, declining over time. And we also need an evidence base to support interventions from a media policy perspective, or a funding perspective, be that at a federal or local level, or through philanthropic organizations, or indeed, to encourage individuals to give.

So for example, I’m on the foundation board of the local NPR affiliate. I’m going to be doing an event next week where I’m going to talk about the local news crisis, and basically show the data. And at the end of that we’re essentially going to say to the people in the room, this is why you need to give money to support public media. And you can’t make that ask of people, be that individuals, foundations, state legislators or even the federal level, without an evidence base. And so I think that is one of the most important things for us to do is to provide that evidence and provide that evidence in a manner that is easy to understand and accessible so that it’s something that the consumers can understand but also so can industry folks as well.

CISLM: This is all going great. I do have one last fun, fun question to wrap us up. What is one thing that helps you get through a long day of work?

DR: Apart from coffee?

CISLM: I’m a big believer in coffee so, yes, that counts.

DR: That was one thing that gets me through. I listened to a lot of music. I always have worked to music. And still do. And I love the fact that I have my own office and that I’m not in an open-plan office, so I don’t have to just have noise-canceling headphones on. And I love being able to explore and discover new music, listen to old, old stuff as well. And that plus coffee usually helps me to power through.

CISLM: What are you listening to right now?

DR: I’ve been listening to a lot of Fleetwood Mac recently, and also Mac Fleetwood, which is like dance remix of a bunch of their stuff as a DJ. They basically do DJ sets where all they play is Fleetwood Mac tunes, and they’re only on SoundCloud, but they’re really great. And so that’s been mostly my jam over the last week or so.

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 to join this awesome group!