Q&A with media and politics researcher, Danny Hayes

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.

Danny Hayes (he/him) is a professor of political science at George Washington University. He is a researcher of media, public opinion and elections. He holds a B.A. in journalism, masters in government and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.

Hayes has written three books on the intersection between media and politics: “News Hole: The Demise of Local Journalism and Political Engagement” (2021); “Women on the Run: Media, Gender, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era” (2016); and” Influence from Abroad: Foreign Voices, the Media, and U.S. Public Opinion” (2013).

CISLM intern Caitlyn Yaede sat down with Hayes 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?

Danny Hayes: In 2021, my co-author Jennifer Lawless and I published a book called “News Hole,” which documents how local newspaper coverage of local politics across the United States has been declining for a couple of decades and how that has contributed to Americans knowing less about who their local officials are, being less likely to participate in local elections and a variety of other effects on civic engagement.

(These effects) raise some questions about how voters and other organizations can hold elected officials accountable in an era where local news is becoming harder to find.

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

DH: I think there are a couple of things. One is that if we want a vibrant, healthy democracy in the United States — a country where lots of decisions relevant to people’s lives are being made by local elected officials — then we need information sources that can help people find out what those elected officials are doing and how those policies and decisions are affecting people’s lives.

In order to have that, we need to have news organizations, like local newspapers, that have traditionally functioned to serve that purpose. We need to find public policy solutions, whether that’s intervention by nonprofits or the government or just really creative journalistic efforts to solve this information gap. That’s an important part of sustaining a really healthy democratic culture in the United States.

CISLM: What’s a recent research project in local news that you admire?
DH: My colleague in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, Matthew Hindman, published a book in 2018 called “The Internet Trap.” One part of this book shows how the design of the internet, its algorithmic nature and its dominance by big companies — mostly search engines and advertising firms — deprioritizes local news. It makes it hard for people to find local news, but it also shows that there’s relatively weak demand for local news.

I think that’s a really important demonstration of how the internet has fundamentally reshaped the media environment and the particularly pernicious consequences that it’s had for local news. This is something that policymakers and others need to be focused on as they think about this problem.

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?
DH: (Local news) is really connected to democracy and how democracy operates. It gives people an opportunity to exercise their voices by helping them stay informed. But it also has a less measurable effect, which is to create a sense of place and community among residents.

If you grow up in a country where people in your neighborhood or your state or your city are consuming the same news source or reading the same newspaper, then you begin to develop a shared understanding of what the community’s problems are and it makes it more likely that residents can come together.

I think that local news sources also help build trust among people who live in the same place because you get a better sense of who the people that live around you are, even the people that you don’t know personally. That’s a really important part of modern society, especially one in which it’s very easy for people to get individualized entertainment or get tucked away in their little corner of the internet.

Having local new news sources is one way to maintain communities in a geographic sense that is, I think, harder to maintain in a more globalized era.

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

DH: I think there are a lot of people who are really trying to solve the particular problems that the internet has created for the local news industry. There are lots of philanthropic organizations and nonprofits that are doing all kinds of really interesting and innovative experimentation with how to make local news viable in the current age. There are a lot of interested, enthusiastic and bright students who are studying journalism and trying to figure out how to create a journalistic community for the next generation.

So, those things are really exciting to me. Even as a researcher who has done a lot of work that has suggested that things are bad and that the changes to the local media environment have not been particularly helpful for democracy, I certainly don’t think that it’s all doom and gloom.

There’s a lot of opportunity and some exciting things that are being done and I’m optimistic. The future will be brighter than the last couple of decades has been for local news.

CISLM: What helps you get through a long day of work?
DH: My kids. They don’t care whether or not I’ve done anything useful in the research, and it’s a really good thing to be able to interact with them. Also, running is very helpful.

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.