Q&A with Local News Researchers Matthew J. Powers & Sandra Vera-Zambrano

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 Feb. 16 and 17 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.

Matthew J. Powers (he/him) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is also Co-Director of the Center for Journalism, Media and Democracy.

Sandra Vera-Zambrano (she/her) is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. She studies the sociology of journalism and political communication and belongs to Sistema Nacional de Investigadores.

Powers has been engaged for several years in comparative analysis of journalism in France and the United States. The project — conducted jointly with Sandra Vera-Zambrano  — asks how journalists in these distinct contexts react to the similar economic and technological transformations that confront them. It has resulted in several publications, and several more – including a book, tentatively titled What Journalists Are For – to be released in summer 2023.

CISLM intern Caitlyn Yaede sat down with Powers and Vera-Zambrano via Zoom for the following interview.

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?

Matthew Powers: The thing that we’ve worked on most recently is a book that we just finished, which is coming out in the summer. It’s looking at journalists in France and the U.S. in two cities, asking the simple question of, Why anybody would bother to be a local news journalist, given that the pay is pretty bad, the career prospects are pretty grim and the status, as it were, has diminished over time. 

So how is it that we even still have people who are willing to be local journalists? How do people actually manage their careers?

Sandra Vera-Zambrano: I think one of the important parts of this question is to go back to journalists because if we didn’t have journalists, we didn’t have anything else. So (we are) worrying about news or worrying about the profession itself or worrying about its link to democracy. It’s senseless if there are no journalists anymore. So we decided to go back to the basic, foundational question.

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

SVZ: We’re talking about journalists and we’re talking about something that’s very important. And the most important thing, I think, is the vocation that they have and the loss of vocation with these very, very difficult conditions. So, in a sense, what we can learn from (this research) is that if we don’t take care of journalists and their conditions and their vocation, then what happens to that profession? 

MP: There are certain types of jobs in societies that people do not do because they’ll make a lot of money, but because they think it’s socially important, and journalism is one of those jobs.

Being a nurse is another one, being a caretaker, being a teacher – and what’s common across all of these otherwise very different jobs is that it’s been increasingly difficult to both recruit and retain people. And that’s part of a broader crisis in society that hasn’t been discussed as much. And we think that that’s something that’s really, really important when we talk about journalism.

It’s not only asking about like the quality of information that people get, or whether or not it reduces voting rates, but that there’s something really, really important about these types of jobs. As a society, in both Western Europe and North America, we’re doing a terrible job of.

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

SVZ:  Oh, we have many! I think there are a couple of foundational works that we cannot forget, and I’m thinking very precisely of (Margaret) Sullivan’s work and how important that is.

I’m, of course, thinking of (Duke DeWitt Wallace Director Phil) Napoli’s work.  I now work in Mexico and (am) thinking of work that puts together local (news) and violence, which I think is something very interesting.

MP: One that I know we’ve really grappled with a lot is a paper that Phoebe Maares did with a couple of colleagues, which was about how young journalists become disillusioned even though they win prizes and do really well. That, I think, we found really, really interesting, really important and really useful for us trying to think about how is it that people actually maintain or lose their belief that all of this effort is worthwhile.

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

SVZ: I think when there are heavy crises, there are great expectations. I’m the optimist of the team and I think that there are many challenges, but nothing that cannot be solved if we take care of journalists and their conditions, first and foremost.

I really think that there are very terrible things going on – the disappearance of newsrooms or lie worsening conditions – but I think there’s something to it to be saved.

MP: What’s heartening is the fact that we still actually have people who are interested in it. And that (the career path is) still actually attractive and that it’s not naive – (young journalists) are not unaware that the future is not entirely bright — That if you went into computer science it would be much easier to find a job and have a career. But I think what’s important about that, is there are two different ways you can think about a crisis. 

One is a crisis in which people no longer believe in the utility of something. You can see that in other types of vocations  — like the priesthood or far-left parties in Europe — where it’s hard to get people to actually believe in the utility of those things because they don’t believe in the foundational things themselves.

I think in journalism it’s very different. People are still very, very attracted to the profession and still find it to be very useful but oftentimes don’t actually have the conditions to be able to realize the types of things that they get in (to in the profession). And I think that that’s actually something to be worried about, because there is this big gap between expectations and reality, but the very possibility of having those expectations and being frustrated by them shows the sort of durability of the profession itself. And I think that’s really important.

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

SVZ: I have a small kid, so that’s the end of the day and the start of another day, which is totally not work-related. Family time is like a rule. It didn’t use to be, but when my kid was born, it became one.

MP: Because I don’t have kids, it’s very different. I have probably a glass of wine, some music and doing anything but reading or consuming local news.

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