Q&A with local news researcher, Teri Finneman

Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy and the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM) hosted the Local News Researchers Workshop Feb. 16 and 17 in Chapel Hill. Before and after the conference, which was supported by Democracy Fund, CISLM reached out to a selection of the researchers attending to discuss recent projects, and how local news research can help journalists, community members, funders and academics understand the challenges facing local news.

Teri Finneman (she/her) is an associate professor in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas and publisher of The Eudora Times, a nationally recognized news desert publication that she runs with journalism students. Her research focuses on news coverage of U.S. first ladies and women politicians, as well as the U.S. suffrage movement.

Her most recent research project examines evolving revenue and readership strategies for rural newsrooms. She is also an oral journalist historian and founder and executive producer of the Journalism History podcast, as well as the chairwoman of the Journalism History journal.

CISLM intern Katelyn Chedraoui sat down with Finneman via Zoom for the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media: Walk us through your most recent project, “Revenue & Readership: Rescuing and Reviving Rural Journalism.”

Teri Finneman: Backing up first, this project stemmed from an earlier work that I did with Will Mari, where we examined, during the very initial months of the pandemic, the impact that COVID-19 was having on rural journalism. After seeing the results of that project, it was almost infuriating to see that, in one of the most crucial periods when people needed local news, that some of these newsrooms were suffering so terribly financially. They were not only having to worry about working 24/7 to protect their communities but also dealing with the huge stress of losing all of their advertising revenue and having to keep their doors open at the same time, which was just horrendous. They shouldn’t have had to worry about that when local news was so critical.

And so from there, I was asking, why is it that after all these decades, academia has not yet helped the news industry solve this business model crisis yet? This is a failure of academia in my opinion. And so it really motivated me to begin looking into solutions, so that this kind of problem didn’t happen again. And so I reached out to Pat Ferrucci at (the University of Colorado, Boulder) and to Nick Mathews, and we formed a research team to begin analyzing this process over a two year period.

This study that just came out is part one of three. So what this first paper is doing is a basic survey of the land and asking publishers what they thought was a viable financial model, and then doing the wise thing and asking readers themselves what they would actually support. We used this as a starting point as we determined what is a potential business model that actually could work.

CISLM: Looking at your findings, there was, maybe unsurprisingly, a big difference between what products the publishers thought readers would prefer and what the readers actually thought. Was this something you expected to see?

TF: I’m not sure what we expected, but I will say the results weren’t surprising whatsoever when we actually saw them. I am a journalism historian, and, the more I get into my field and think about how journalism history applies to current times, it is really quite astounding that this industry is still using a business model from the 1800s and the industry itself doesn’t even really know it. When I go around and give public presentations, I really drill in, “Andrew Jackson was president when this business model started to form,” and then you wonder why it doesn’t work anymore. And I think that’s really important to point out for a number of reasons, because I feel like the journalists themselves, as well as perhaps society as a whole, put too much personal blame on journalism for being a failure, when really the failure is using a business model from the 1800s. That is what the failure is, and that is where the adjustment needs to be made.

There is still a huge, huge demand for local news. We simply have to modernize how it is paid for, and that’s something that the readers recognize. The readers, who are outside the structures of journalistic norms, they live out in the real world, so to speak, where they pay for things like Netflix subscriptions. And the journalism industry is very, very rigid and doesn’t like change because it is afraid that it will shake up the norms, and what it is and what it stands for, (which) makes it very difficult to implement much needed necessary change after 200 years of status quo.

CISLM: One of the key findings you and your team found was that readers were twice as likely to pay for journalism if they knew a journalist. Is that in line with some of these new ways that the industry can change, opening themselves up to encourage new revenue sources?

TF: Yeah, that was a really significant finding. The newspaper industry, I think, assumes because we spend so much time (in it), it assumes that other people know what we’re dealing with, and they don’t. They have no idea — and why would they, because we don’t tell them , right? We want everyone else to be transparent, but then we aren’t transparent to ourselves about our own model.

(That finding) makes a lot of sense because think about the general charities that you donate to. You tend to have some kind of personal connection with who you give money to, and so it makes a lot of sense that if you actually know what journalists do, and you have some understanding of the work that it takes to put into journalism, you’re going to be more likely to want to give more money to support it.

CISLM: What is something that you hope non-academics, local journalists or community members can learn from this research? What is one takeaway you hope they will have?

TF: One of the first things that I want to point out is that the journalism industry as a whole has developed this mythology that older readers are what is keeping us going. And this study, along with one from Media Insight Project that just came out, found that’s really not true. In fact, we found out that Gen Z and millennials were more likely to help their newspaper if they knew it was in trouble than the baby boomers were.

I think we have really have to stop putting all that emphasis into older readers and actually put in the work and pay more attention to younger readers rather than just blowing them off, thinking that we will never get them anyway. That is blatantly untrue, and it is a mythology that even my own students repeated in my class, so it is widespread. We need to do more outreach to these younger readers than we are. That was one significant finding.

The other one is we heard a lot from publishers that they simply don’t have time or resources to try something new. There is this assumption that something new automatically means a lot more work, when instead it really just means shifting your way of thinking and incorporating something new into your routine. It is not necessarily more work but just a different way of doing things, and the increased revenue that you bring in will therefore make other parts of your job much easier.

Like what we found in our model, these different things are not only going to bring in more revenue — it’s going to bring in a closer connection to your community as well. It will develop those kinds of relationships that make people more loyal to your product.

CISLM: What is a research project in local news field that you’ve been reading recently?

TF: Something I was just discussing this morning with some coworkers is the Potter Digital Ambassadors program at the University of Missouri is something that I’m really interested in starting at the University of Kansas as well. We need to do a much better job of connecting Generation Z with community journalism, and letting students know that if you don’t end up at the New York Times or Washington Post, there are a million other options out there that really need you.

Community journalism is journalism in this country — these small, rural weeklies are journalism and serve people, and we need to do a better job of introducing students to those possibilities and the importance of those possibilities.

In my community journalism class, (students) are partnered with weekly newspapers in Kansas this semester, to learn more about the business and management models of how these papers work and how they can be improved. Forming these partnerships with universities and these weeklies I think is really, really important work that needs to grow.

CISLM: My next question is in no way a small question, but here it is: why does local news research matter? Why should we do it? Why should we read it; why should we fund it?

TF: Well, it’s important for many reasons. One of my biggest concerns right now is how many rural weeklies there are across the country, where the publisher is in their 70s or 80s, and they’re at retirement age, and there is no one to take over this paper. I think a huge impending crisis is what is going to happen if no one takes over all of those papers. The news desert crisis, as we call it right now, is going to look minor in comparison to what could be coming down the road. We need to move now to get ahead of this, (to prepare for) how we are going to help save and preserves all of these community newspapers.

It is just a huge void when local news isn’t there to provide the sense of cohesion for a community to bring them together, to have a central place to get information about the people around them and to feel like they are connected to something, in addition to the regular journalistic work of needing to know what the City Commission is doing and all that. But the cohesion role of newspapers is such a critical component, and so, local news researchers need to be doing absolutely everything they can right now to help solve these problems before they get even worse.

CISLM: So looking at this future of local news, is there anything that excites you about it or are there parts of it that are maybe more optimistic than others?

TF: Yeah, I mean, we’re seeing this huge interest across the country. I hosted the “News Deserts U: Local News Matters” conference in October, bringing together faculty from other universities who are interested in using their students to help fill these holes of lacking coverage of local news, and this has become this is really taken off as a big phenomenon. I see huge potential with Generation Z coming up. Too often they aren’t told about the business end of (journalism), and understanding the business side right now is absolutely critical if you are going into journalism.

I am very pleased with how many efforts are ongoing right now to make sure that the next generation of journalists is prepared to help tackle some of these issues and to be connected to local communities.

CISLM: Our last question is a fun one: what is something that helps you get through a long day of work?

TF: Pretty much all my days are long. From the moment I get up to the moment I go to, I’m a professor, I’m a newspaper publisher, and I run a podcast.

CISLM: Your day just media all day, every day.

TF: All day. But I do have a rambunctious kitten named Mittens, and I like to bake.