Q&A with public media researcher, Louisa Lincoln

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, which was supported by Democracy Fund.

To highlight the excellent work these researchers are doing to support local news, 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.

For Louisa Lincoln, she/her, a doctoral student at Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, her research examines sustainable funding models for journalism with a focus on nonprofit news and public media organizations in the United States. Before pursuing her PhD, Lincoln worked in the sponsorship department at NPR and in the development department at PRX (formerly Public Radio International).

CISLM intern Adejuwon Ojebuoboh spoke to Lincoln 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?

Louisa Lincoln: I’m co-authoring a paper with my adviser Dr. Victor Pickard. Both of us really believe in the power of the public media system in the U.S.

When I talk about public media, I’m thinking not just of the national entities we know and love, like PBS, but also of the more than 1,000 member stations across the country.

Our study is essentially asking, what would it take for some of those stations to fill the gaps left behind by the decline in local news? We interviewed about two dozen public media professionals from stations and industry organizations.

We are really trying to assess some of the structural impediments to the provision of local news. We’re thinking about funding models, structures, mechanisms and ownership. Also, what it would really take for the current system to be reimagined to be a more robust source of local news and information, specifically for public media.

Some of our takeaways, that I shared at the (Local News Researchers Workshop) conference, were just that one of the greatest strengths of the public media system is that the infrastructure is already there. Like I mentioned, there are more than 1,000 stations across the country, including WUNC in Chapel Hill and WHYY in Philadelphia, that are already serving their local communities.

Some of the challenges are structural concerns. There’s all of these stations across the country that are all reinventing the wheel, to continue to bring this news and information to their communities. But they’re not. There’s not structural leadership happening.

The other positive thing that I would add is that these organizations are already stepping in to fill gaps. For example, WBEZ, Chicago’s local member station, bought the Chicago Sun-Times to help fill in the gaps in Chicago. There are many other examples of public media organizations taking in non-profit news organizations in Philly. WHYY acquired (online startup) Billy Penn a few years ago. So there are all sorts of experimentation going on.

And really the greatest strength of the public media system is that the infrastructure already exists. It’s just a matter of building off of that.

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

LL: One big takeaway is that a lot of people outside of journalism and outside of the academy don’t necessarily know that there’s a problem. There’s a lack of awareness of the decline of local news and its implications. There was a study from the Pew Research Center a few years ago, talking about how most Americans thought their local news outlets were financially healthy.

That could not be further from the case. I think that started to change in the last few years from what I’ve seen in industry and in academia.

But I think there’s a lot of awareness and movement-building work that still has to be done by journalists and by industry groups but also by academics when it comes to explaining the stakes of the issue.

The other takeaway from the study that I’m working on with my adviser is that when we think about the broad strokes of the local news crisis, there’s probably not going to be some sort of magic solution.

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

LL: One study that I was excited about was actually at the conference. I was able to present on the same panel as Mark Fuerst and Carrie Porter. They were presenting in the place of their co-author Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro (for the National Trust for Local News). They were also looking at some of the questions around what it would mean for public media journalism to be a more robust source of local news and information.

I read their report as soon as it came out in October and I have been citing it like crazy in my work. The chance to meet with them and chat and have our research complement each other was really cool to see. We were addressing similar questions but with different methodological approaches. I love when people are working on public media journalism issues.

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?

LL: The nonprofit model has been around for a long time, but it’s experienced a resurgence in the last 15 to 20 years (in local news) and there have been some scholars who have started to do really amazing work on it.

The sector is growing really fast, and it’s becoming an increasingly large and prominent part of the journalism industry. There’s still so much work to be done in really understanding it. Nonprofit news organizations are becoming a much larger component of people’s media diets.

So, it’s really important to understand what information they bring to the table, how they’re funded, what those mechanisms look like, what are the backgrounds of the people in nonprofit news, and how nonprofit news organizations are providing public service journalism in a way that commercial entities may or may not be able to do in the current economic climate.

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

LL: There are so many brilliant people working on this. They’re studying it in really exciting, innovative and different ways. It’s getting at questions that we’ve never really gotten at before. That’s really exciting to see and to be a part of those conversations on the industry side.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that we’re at a point of rupture in the journalism industry. But, I think the upside of rupture can be that there’s an immense potential for positive change.

There are new ideas and new models and new leaders who are coming forth that are highly invested in building a new local news system that works better for more people, that serves more communities, that serves them more deeply and serves them more effectively.

There’s also a real acknowledgment that local news historically has not served many communities of color and low-income communities. There are really brilliant folks who are working to right those wrongs and build something that’s better. I think that’s incredibly exciting.

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

LL: The days of the PhD student are long. So, I’m a runner.

Two days ago, I just registered for my first marathon. I’m doing that in October. I really started running during the pandemic in the early stages and it’s been a lifeline. As a graduate student, I try to usually get out first thing in the morning and just get in as many miles as I can. I love seeing the sunrise over Philadelphia.

The other thing would be that I have an espresso machine.