Q&A with rural media researcher, Nick Mathews

Nick Mathews is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. His research interests focus on local news, journalism studies, rural media environments, rural broadband, news audiences, news deserts, social media and its role in journalism and society and the value of news in everyday life.

He has published in peer-reviewed journals New Media & Society, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Journalism, Journalism Studies, Digital Journalism, Mass Communication and Society, Journalism Practice and Journal of Communication Inquiry. He’s worked in the journalism industry for more than 20 years, including time as a sports editor at the Houston Chronicle and as a regional editor in Central Virginia.

CISLM intern Reagan Allen sat down with Mathews via Zoom for the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

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?

Nick Mathews: One that I’m doing myself (is) a book project (called), “Cries from the Desert.” I am looking at areas in rural communities that are struggling to get access to quality news and information and trying to understand when there is a news organization, even if it’s a 150-year-old weekly newspaper, that the readers themselves are not very satisfied with the coverage that they’re receiving from that news organization.

So if that’s the case, do they live in a news desert? There is a news organization there, but the readers themselves don’t necessarily recognize that as being local. And for a variety of reasons, right? So they don’t consider it to be local because it’s not owned locally. The journalists do not live in that community because they live in a regional headquarters somewhere else. And because of that the content is too often not local, so they don’t necessarily consider 150-year-old weekly newspapers to, in fact, be local.

So it’s in that space that I’m writing about what we consider a news desert for one and then also, when the people do consider themselves living in a news desert, where are they getting their news from?

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

NM: A couple of things. One is, I would encourage them to listen and to talk with their communities. I know that sounds really painfully simple. But in some ways, I also fear that news organizations are not doing that. So what is it that the residents really want from their news organization? So that’s certainly one.

Then there are other very easy things that news organizations can do. So for instance, when you have on your masthead, or when your ad says, you know, where people are concerned, send their letters to the editor or anything like that, take it within the community, as opposed to being, you know, based in your regional headquarters.

Here’s an example: The Kansas City Star, right here in the state of Missouri, recently had an advertisement that was trying to get donations for their newsroom. If you want to give a donation to the Kansas City Star, please send a check to Sacramento, California. That’s an issue.

So these kinds of things – even if you don’t necessarily have a local reporter or a local news organization, try to make everything as locally driven, community-driven as possible.

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

NM: Yeah, so there’s so many. The thing is, as much as we were identifying challenges within local news, the research work that is being done in this space right now is very exciting. And it’s not only academic in nature, but it’s very practical in nature as well, such as a project that I mentioned the very first one to you. So there’s a lot of work being done here.

For instance, the Reynolds Journalism Institute, based here at the University of Missouri, they do very public-facing work — that research is fantastic. … I’ll mention one piece that’s from Talia Stroud and her colleague, Emily Van Duyn, that is looking at how local news organizations can actually have better relationships with their audiences. And that the relationship between the news organization and audiences is really something I’m interested in. So there’s a lot of really nice work to be done there.

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?

NM: Local news is foundational to our democracy. There are roughly, I think, about 6,000 newspapers in the United States. And, roughly, a little bit more than 5,000 of them are, if memory serves, our rural news organizations. I mean, we’re talking about weekly newspapers here. So, you know, local is a wide variety of topics or a wide variety of areas. But I mean, in most rural areas in particular — and that’s where I study a lot — there’s a huge need for local news. I mean, there’s nowhere else for these folks to get the news themselves. So that’s really why local news connects people to the community they live in.

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

NM: Press Forward has put forth the idea of a $500 million investment in local news. There’s where we’re starting to understand very seriously — and the pandemic played a role in this — the role of local news, the struggles of local news and the importance of it to our audiences.

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

NM: My students, certainly they inspire me on a regular basis. The students here at the University of Missouri are just absolutely phenomenal. And I get challenged more by our students than I do by any colleague I’ll ever come across.

I genuinely want to do research that makes a true impact. I think the projects I’m working on can make a difference. News organizations no longer have the resources available to them to do a lot of marketing work in particular, or audience metric work. I think of myself as a representative of the audience. I think of myself in that way to learn from audiences, how news organizations can best serve them. I want to take that information to news organizations to better serve their audiences. It’s incredibly rewarding.