Takeaways from the 2023 Local News Researchers’ Workshop

By Marisa Porto, UNC Knight Chair in Local News and Sustainability

Citizen documenters, an entertainment tax to fund community media, and a strategy to expand news coverage through public media were three initiatives showcased at the 2023 Local News Researchers’ Workshop held recently at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

More than 60 researchers from industry, academia, nonprofit and government came together to share their studies about new business models, public policy initiatives and civic initiatives to help the local news ecosystem.

“Over the past decade or so, local journalism has emerged as a distinct area of focus for researchers, both within and beyond academia,” said Philip Napoli, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University, Sanford School of Public Policy, organizer of the program. “But there are relatively few opportunities for those of us who work in this area to come together, learn about each other’s work, and form collaborations. This workshop was developed to fill that need, and we feel very grateful that Democracy Fund has supported it over the years and recognizes the importance of bringing this community of researchers together.”

It was the first time the workshop has been held in person since the Covid-19 pandemic, and it was cause for celebration among those who gathered to share their work research with others from around the world.

“The future of journalism is about collaboration,” Erica Beshears Perel, the director of the Center for Sustainability and Innovation in Local News, told the participants at the opening session of the workshop. The future of journalism research should be too, she said.

The field of local journalism research has expanded, not just in the number of scholars and researchers but also in scope, said Jessica Mahone, the center’s research director. The presentations at the conference addressed not only news loss and news ecosystems, but policy, evaluation, funding, community media, military journalism and more. “That’s far from a complete list,” she said. “It feels like the field is coming into its own.”

Takeaways from the 2023 Local News Researchers Workshop include:

Government funding for local news and information: Academics and professionals are assessing government-funded programs developed to improve economic conditions faced by local news organizations and their teams. In Canada, Magda Konieczna at Concordia University is studying a five-year government program to support the creation of civic journalism in news deserts in the country. In the United States, Sarah Stonebely at The Center for Cooperative Media is analyzing the state’s public funding of news and information in New Jersey.

New tax revenue streams: Meanwhile, researchers at Antoine Haywood at the University of Pennsylvania and Lee Shaker at Portland State have developed a financial model that could fund the future of local news by allowing cities or states to tax entertainment companies from Disney to Dish. The money raised could be funneled to existing community media districts.

Local news revenue opportunities: Research by Teri Finneman, Patrick Ferrucci and Nick Mathews showed that local newspaper leaders continued to rely on the traditional revenue streams in advertising and subscriptions as the foundation for revenue. The same research showed that there were opportunities in memberships, e-newsletters, and events, but news leaders seemed to be unable or unwilling to change their business models. A related study by Duke University showed that some news organizations are moving away from paywalls to donation-based digital membership model or subscriber-only model.

Inclusion Index in Pittsburg: Letrell Deshan Crittenden at the American Press Institute worked with news organizations in Pittsburgh to study how those organizations could improve their diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging efforts in their newsrooms and content and in their communities. The resulting Inclusion Index examined aspects such as engagement, trust and representation and found that developing a local newsroom pipeline, strengthening engagement and assessing newsgathering processes helped to improve DEIB efforts in a community news organization.

People-powered projects: Across the country, communities are developing citizen-based local news initiatives that include live storytelling events, a photography collective and hyperlocal news sites fed by university journalism students. Andrew Conte at Park Point University in Pennsylvania presented on a curriculum for citizen journalists that could allow such programs to be expanded. City Bureau, a nonprofit news outlet in Chicago has developed a freelance program called Documenters that trains and pays people to record public meetings as a “civic side hustle.” The program has been rolled out in Cleveland, Detroit, and Atlanta, with more communities to come.

Public media: At the University of Pennsylvania, researcher Louisa Lincoln conducted interviews with industry leaders and discovered a renewed focus on local news by public radio stations, which already have well-established fundraising operations. They also found that public radio stations were becoming the central local news source in markets where local news outlets. A related study by Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, Mark Fuerst and Caroline Porter at the National Trust for Local News, Innovation4Media and the Ralstin Agency shows revenue for public radio is steadily increasing, with more Americans are financially supporting public media than in the previous decade.

Chain ownership effects: A University of Delaware study by Danilo Yanich of television ownership by the top broadcasting companies shows that corporate ownership of local news outlets lessens the number of local news stories and makes it more likely that news from one market will be shared and duplicated throughout the corporation’s stations. Asma Khanom at the Missouri School of Journalism and Data Science and Analytics are studying the ownership effects on local news stories at newspapers.

Transparency in tech philanthropy: In a University of Minnesota study of two tech philanthropy programs, the Facebook Journalism Program and Google News Initiative, Sarah Wiley worked to track down the recipients of several large grant programs. The study found that more than 2,000 news organizations participated in the programs. Of that number, 260 received more than three grants and 80 received five. About 80 percent of the grants were between $5,000 and $70,000, which was not a large enough grant to have a significant impact, according to the research.

Fact-checking: A study by the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University showed that political lies and misinformation were not caught in debates, ads, and social media during the 2022 elections because there wasn’t enough fact-checking. In the more than 600 fact-checkers examined, the study also determined it was hard for readers and viewers to find the fact-check initiatives. Additionally, the research showed that the political lies continue, but some of the fact-checkers were discontinued after elections.

These and related research topics sparked thought-provoking conversations and discussions of collaboration at the two-day research event. The convening showed a strong and vibrant movement to support local news and democracy in the United States, according to Mahone. “Local journalism studies are a growing field, and it is exciting to be a part of that growth,” she said.