Q&A with media sociology researcher, Patrick Ferrucci

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.

Patrick Ferrucci (he/him) is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research is in media sociology and primarily concerns itself with how shifting notions of “organization” in journalism lead to influence on journalism practice. He is particularly interested in how various market models of journalism affect news production processes. He’s also the author of the book Making Nonprofit News: Market Models, Influence and Journalism Practice (Routledge, 2020).

CISLM intern Honor Knapp sat down with Ferrucci via Zoom for the following interview, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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?

Patrick Ferrucci: One of the things that I’m working on now with Teri Finneman in Kansas and Nick Matthews in Missouri is (a research project) that we’ve been working on for about a year and a half now. (It) is practical-based research in the sense that we’re really focusing on seeing if something works. I have always looked at, historically, how these different economic structures or revenue models impact journalists since sometimes that’s in a bad way. If we’re talking about foundation funding, a lot of foundation funding is great. It’s a big part of the journalism ecosystem at the moment, but there are some potential negative pieces to that. If organizations are going to use foundation funding, I would argue they have to think about how that matters: What kind of processes do they have to put in place to mitigate the negative aspects of it?

One of the things Teri, Nick, and I did about a year and a half ago (was) we started this project where, first, we did all these focus groups with rural news publishers and were trying to get their views on potential ways to fund journalism, knowing that rural news — especially rural news weeklies — these are the kind of places that were the one (news source) for the entire town and area, and then they go away.

And so we were really looking at the central (U.S.) states, the Great Plains states, did these focus groups, then we did focus groups with readers. So we took all this information, we took all the prior research that we’ve all done and we got some grants. We found (news publishers) — they own a couple of news organizations in rural Kansas — and we said, ‘OK, we’ll give you this money, We’ll help you, we’ll put these processes in place if you change your model a little bit.’ They basically implemented a kind of hybrid membership model event. We’ve been following them for a year.

By doing this with some help, they have increased their revenue significantly. One of the things we’re trying to do with this project is we’re using this Kansas case as a test model. We are looking at it both from a practical point, like, OK, what did they do? What were some of the hiccups? How can we then take this information and maybe use it at other places to help them become a little bit more solvent? But also from a research perspective, like what are the potential pain points? What are the potential parts that, again, were unforeseen influences on journalistic practice, that kind of thing.

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

PF: I think a few things. I think first, historically, and we know I’ve done plenty of research on this part, is journalists and journalism organizations are really, really resistant to change.

I think first when we found an organization that was willing to make a change with a little bit of help, (it) flourished. There’s hopefully proof of concept here — for not much buy-in, in terms of economics, they were able to make a significant change that has boosted their revenue by a significant percentage. It doesn’t take that much knowledge. Hopefully, the work that comes out of this is us in collaboration with the newsroom saying, here are the things you need to do, kind of like a cookbook. This kind of fits in again with the change literature. I think journalism research —this is my pet peeve — has always idealized and romanticized change. A lot of times said change is just because somebody, somewhere like the Knight Foundation or something has decided this is the next big thing. Everybody changes and nobody’s really thought about, well, OK, maybe certain places can afford this, but a lot of places can’t. We romanticize change without really knowing if it actually matters.

But also we’re talking about a specific type of news organization, these kinds of rural weeklies that most people forget about. These aren’t places that are going to be using VR. Understanding what these look like and knowing that these are really, you know, if not the majority, a huge chunk of the American journalism ecosystem is, is a big piece.

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?

PF: I think so much of the research that comes out of journalism studies looks at this kind of idealized version of journalism that I would argue maybe, you know, 10% of actual journalism is. Local journalism is kind of the backbone of the media ecosystem. They’re the ones that are really being lost. I think it’s especially important when we’re talking about local news.

I’m in Boulder, I’m in the Front Range of Colorado. We could lose or we could have really diminished legacy news organizations. You could argue, we do: Our legacy news places here are owned by Alden and they’re not great. They’re good for what they are, but they’re way smaller than what they used to be, but I’m in an amazingly wealthy area where there’s all these experiments that happen. We are not a news desert, no matter how small those places get. There are nonprofits, there are for-profits, there’s everything, right?

But for the places like rural Kansas, Nebraska and more rural areas, local news is literally how they’re informed.

No one’s filling the gap. And it’s not like there’s the economics for somebody to start the Texas Tribune in rural Kansas, right? (Similar outlets) work because they’re in wealthy areas, they don’t work if they’re not in wealthy areas. That’s local news. Those are the places that they’re covering, and I think it’s super important we figure out how to fix that or at least preserve it.

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

PF: I think with the caveat that we have to understand how it matters, these (new) ways to do local news in a more economical way, in ways that actually involve the community more.

There are a lot more conversations going on… The more attention this gets, the more people care. And I think that we’re seeing more people care about this kind of stuff. That’s exciting because the more smart people think about it, the better chance we’ll get to make a better local news ecosystem.

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

PF: Lots of coffee. I mean, I don’t know. I love what I do, so I can’t complain. A lot of people have it way worse. There are no long, real, long days. And yes, coffee.