Q&A with rural news researcher, Gregory Perreault

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.

Gregory Perreault (he/him) is formerly an associate professor of digital journalism at Appalachian State University and an incoming associate professor of media literacy and analytics at University of South Florida’s Zimmerman School. He received his bachelors from Palm Beach Atlantic University, his master’s in communication from Georgetown University and his Ph.D. in journalism from the Missouri School of Journalism.

Perreault’s research has focused on new technologies, journalism and hostility and rural journalism. CISLM intern Caitlyn Yaede sat down with Perreault 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?

Gregory Perreault: There’s a piece that I presented (in late May 2023) at the International Communication Association that was just accepted for publication, pending some minor revisions, on how rural journalists navigate the relationship between their work and public relations.

Being embedded in it as someone who lives in Appalachia, but, in addition, through work with the Rural Journalism Research Group, we have conducted more than 100 interviews with rural journalists from across the country. One of my observations is that, when you’re embedded in these communities, drawing those lines seems far less important than it does, perhaps, at a national level.

So, the rural journals in their community aren’t thinking, necessarily, “Is reporting on this rotary chamber event adhering to the norms of balance and fairness, etc.” It’s more, “What does my community need to know about? What does my community need to hear?”

I’m very excited about this paper. I think that this helps us unpack some of the particular opportunities as well as challenges that are reflected in rural journalism in the United States.

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

GP: First of all, for local journalists, I think one of the things they can take away is, hopefully, a sense of pride that what they’re doing has a particular value that is distinct from — not hierarchically below — the work of national media. We, often in journalism schools, think of it like a step ladder. You go to work in these local rural newsrooms, then you’ll work your way to a national level. And I think that language is highly problematic for a number of reasons. One is that it creates a sense of shame in journalism for people who fall in love with local communities and want to stay there and want to invest and want to be part of the information infrastructure, which we know our country desperately needs.

But, in addition, it creates a sense of shame for people who need to be there because their family is there, their history is there and this is the place where their elders are from. I mean, there are lots of reasons that people choose to live in the places that they live. So, I would hope that one of the things the local journalists can take from this research is a sense that they are doing something distinctive and invaluable to their community that would otherwise not exist. And while it may look distinctive from national media, it is not any less than.

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

GP: At ICA, I got to hear some of the work from Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, on vernacular journalism. Really, really remarkable research. One of the things that she points out, that we’ve observed as well and had not put nearly as good language to, is that in some cases, in rural, hyper-local areas, journalism ends up being homegrown. Because recruiting someone to move to a remote area is not always easy, but nevertheless, the community senses the need for information. So someone will just take on that role often with very little training and try to teach themselves into it, and this is a really key component of what happens in journalism that I don’t think gets talked about enough. These communities sort of self-grow their journalists as opposed to having them recruited or going out and finding them. I thought it was a fantastic project of Karen’s.

CISLM: Why does local news research matter?

GP: My research, overall, is about adaptation. I think that this poses a particular problem in rural journalism, in that many newsrooms are well resourced when it comes to adaptation — changes in society, changes in political climate, changes in technology.

These are things for which there are resources to help you adjust. If you now sense that your audience is on TikTok, you can go to some trainings, you can study from others, you can look at who else is doing it in your city and obtain a sense of how to adapt to that method of storytelling.

If you’ve noticed that your comments sections have become increasingly hostile in the run up to an election, there are systems that you can put in place or an AI filter you can put in place or any additional mechanisms to flag and remove comments before any sort of hate reaches the eyes of other audiences.

But, if you’re in a rural community, sometimes you’re in a newsroom and it’s just you. You are the news. So, that adaptation puts an additional strain on a journalist. Understanding what that strain is and how journalists can manage adaptation is essential to survival.

We have to adapt. It’s biological. But it doesn’t come easy when there’s no one else to help you do it. I think that’s what makes this research really, really important to me, personally.

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

GP: I have a sense that our journalism schools and our educational infrastructure is finally starting to see the value of local news. I’m sure you’ve heard this from many people, but 10 or 20 years ago, if you mentioned local news to someone, people just laughed you out of the room because it didn’t seem very exciting.
The exciting things were all happening in New York, Washington, Los Angeles. So, why would you want to study these communities that seem small and minor?
But they’re not minor to the people who live in them. Seventy-two percent of America is, to some degree, rural. So acknowledging that, I think, is a really essential component and I’m seeing more and more universities that are recognizing and honoring that, where they devote resources, time, and attention.

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

GP: I’d say it’s the voices of the people I speak to. My scholarship is all interview-based, so I think that’s one of the things that’s wonderful. I get to sit down and hear from these working journalists who are doing incredible work — just, hands down, incredible work. As scholars, we can question this and question that, but there’s no questioning the work ethic and the drive that every one of these rural journalists has.
Hearing their passion for their communities and hearing, frankly, their sacrifice, the things they’ve given up in order to serve their communities, is really inspiring. It puts a lot of other things in perspective, where you could have a bad day in academia and there’s not as much at stake as the things that our rural journalists face routinely.

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 this group!