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Catching Up With the News Crisis

In the wake of the 2016 US election, there’s been a lot of soul-searching about the state of the news media. Do facts exist, what’s fake news, how did we get here, what can we do now? That sort of thing. Some of this introspection touches on a topic I’ve studied for 10+ years: the shape of local news in the face of digital media competition. Given all the excitement, I thought I’d post a quick update on my work (not something I frequently do, apparently)…

First, I have written (and published) several recent pieces that relate to local news use. Working with a colleague from Norway – Eiri Elvestad – I conducted a comparative analysis of changing news use patterns over the past twenty years in the US and Norway. In short, we were interested in understanding if the avalanche of new media choices in both countries that grew with the internet caused people to pay more/less attention to local, national, or international news — and if the changes over time differed for citizens in different political/social contexts. This piece, Media Choice Proliferation and Shifting Orientations Towards News in the United States and Norway, 1995-2012, will be published in the Nordicom Review and shows that attention to local news is a particular loser in the transition from analog to digital media. The patterns of change diverge between the US and Norway in some interesting ways, however, which suggests that a strong civic culture (such as Norway’s) can moderate changes in the relationship between audience/news that technology facilitates.

I’ve also published a pair of other, shorter pieces that deal more directly with the idea that citizens’ values (and culture) critically shape their news usage. First, I wrote an entry for the Oxford Bibliographies on Civic Duty. The idea of a ‘civic duty’ comes largely from political science research and was originally sketched out by scholars trying to understand why people vote. I think that civic duty — along with other, related feelings like community attachment — are important psychological precursors that relate to many civic/political behaviors including news use. These orientations are shaped by many forces of political socialization – family, school, media, etc. – and they should be considered as modern news products are conceptualized, designed, and marketed. Figuring out the right way to position news — which is today seen as optional by so many Americans — is a really important challenge for news producers of the future. Along those lines, I wrote an essay for Media Development called Who Loves Local News? about the right way to produce local news for young audiences. My short, perhaps counterintuitive, take is that local news orgs are more likely to find success by appealing to Gen Z’s heart, not their head.

Meanwhile, I’ve also done a bunch of media over the past few months. The Atlantic had a lengthy piece on Mark Zuckerberg’s take on the news that featured my research; this, in turn, led to 20 minutes on a local radio show in New Orleans.  My take was featured in a recent Nieman Journalism Lab article on dead newspapers. And, last but not least, I did a few minutes live on Al Jazeera – also talking about the decline of local newspapers. For your viewing pleasure, here’s the whole package:



Thinking About Communication Globally

uganda_mapSince I began studying Communication, most of my research has focused on the United States — especially within local contexts. Over the past 16 months, I’ve been exploring communication effects in a new context (for me): Uganda. In the process, I’ve been collaborating with an NGO named Peripheral Vision International (PVI) that works to facilitate the flow of communication in East/Central Africa.

In simple terms, I’m helping PVI ground various communication campaigns in research. In reality, creating and distributing effective messages in a country around the world, where 90% of households lack electricity, more than 50 languages are spoken and the median age is 15.5 is quite challenging! Ideally, research can be integrated into this process as both a guide and an assessment — which is where I enter the equation.

At any rate, in the past couple of months, I have published and discussed some of this work. Below, in a short lecture, I explore the rationale for this work:


In addition, a recent publication in the International Journal of Communication depicts the effects of a specific project. What’s the best way to talk about government corruption on a rap news television program? We’re trying to find out…

Dead Newspapers, Live Scholarship, and Slow Posts

ri shakaAnother academic year is in the books, and I certainly didn’t find much time to blog. You could argue that I was working on more important things — teaching, publishing, etc. Or, you could argue that I was only responding to immediate incentives and failing to heed the long-term benefits of blogging. Maybe both?

At any rate, a fair number of people have come to this site in the past few months (according to Google Analytics) looking for Dead Newspapers and the Damage Done — my article on measuring the empirical effects of the closure of a pair of American newspapers in 2009. It only took about 5 years for the postmortem to reach print — but when it did, a few people actually noticed. Crazy! For those of you who are interested, the link above takes you to the official Political Communication PDF. As far as I know, the journal is providing free access to the publication indefinitely. If you poke around on this site, you might find an earlier draft as well…

Notably, my article received coverage from a number of outlets, including The Boston Globe, Poynter, the Nieman Journalism Lab @ Harvard, and the Yomiuri Shimbun in Japan. Writing about newspapers, it turns out, is a good way to get covered by newspapers. For now. Levity aside, having people read my scholarship is very gratifying. I’ll be hard at work this summer, working on my next act. In the meantime, I’m still trying to find my way through the Japanese translation of my own work. So far, I can recognize my name — and that’s about it.


Studying Community Attachment & Communication

Oxford_University_Press_early_logoAn entry on Community Attachment that I wrote for the Oxford Bibliographies, edited by Patricia Moy, just went live this week. The bibliographies are a really great resource — I often recommend them to students as a starting point for their research projects. Many eminent scholars (across many disciplines) have contributed to the resource and I am pleased to be a part it as well. My entry can be found in the Communication section — which is gated, so the link above may not work. In the entry, I provide an overview of the conceptualization of community attachment, an exploration of its historical roots, and an introduction to its study within Communication. If you do have access to the Oxford Bibliographies via your institution/library, you can check out my whole entry. If not, here’s the first paragraph. Out of respect to the publisher, I won’t be posting the whole entry here…

Community attachment may be thought of as the extent to which residents of a place possess cognitive or affective ties to each other and to that place. Interest in the concept can be traced to the rise of urbanization and industrialization in the 19th century. As new immigrants flooded into rapidly developing cities, the social, economic, and political systems under which agrarian societies and their communities had long been organized were disrupted. How would these new cities, and the residents that had left their families and homes behind, fare? In 1887, pioneering sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies theorized about this transition in Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, catalyzing a generation of scholarly concern about the rootlessness of new urban residents. In the mid-20th century, Morris Janowitz brought the interests in cities and communication shown at the School of Sociology at the University of Chicago (Chicago School) to a study of the community press. The modern study of the relationship between community attachment and mass media stems from this work. When Janowitz published his seminal study, the population of American cities had stabilized, but it was dominated by enclaves with ethnic roots. If the study of community attachment was driven initially by concern about the integration of immigrants into cities, interest in the interplay between these enclaves and the larger community spurred post–World War II studies of community attachment. As the 20th century progressed, the decline of American cities, the rise of suburbs, and the increasing mobility of the workforce prompted a renewed focus on community attachment as places of residence grew less fixed. What prompts residents of a community to stay, to engage civically and politically within that community, and to feel a sense of connection and responsibility to that community? Today, as individuals turn from geographically proximate mass media toward interest-based niche information sources, the question of community attachment remains a salient one.

Why Slow News is an Impossible Dream

scoop!I’m not exactly sure why, but I spent part of my morning thinking & writing about slow news. I probably had more important work to do than generating this blog post, but…here it is.

Tweet tweet tweet goes the Twitterverse. Blah blah blah go the talking heads. A suspect has been named. A dark-skinned man has been arrested. There are multiple suspects – and they look like frat boys! There’s a dragnet! Refresh. Stay tuned – back right after this…

Unspeakable trauma, again, enthralls the nation. This week, we all turned to Boston – witness to a tragic and terrible attack made during an annual celebration of life and liberty. Before this, we were shocked – and riveted – by events in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and beyond. By this point, audience and media both know the drill for these stories: immediate and ongoing updates are the currency of the moment. The public and the press, swept up in the same wave, all seemingly powerless. Surely, this routine is as unhealthy as it is predictable. Dan Gillmor – and others like Ariana Huffington – have the answer: slow news.

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Dead Newspapers and the Damage Done

pi globeFor the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a paper that examines whether or not there were any negative effects upon Seattle and Denver when they lost one of their major newspapers (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News). After a slow process, the paper has now been accepted for publication in Political Communication — a great journal that will hopefully expose the piece to an interested audience.

My research was cited in a feature article in the Christian Science Monitor — subsequently republished by a few other sources like the MinnPost and Alaska Dispatch — and a few people actually came to this website, poking around, looking for the source material.Their interest was exciting but, lo and behold, there was nothing to find here…because I was bashfully waiting for the peer-review process to work its magic.

Now that the paper has been accepted, I’m posting a draft copy here. A commenter on a previous post noted that he wasn’t convinced by my evidence; as of today, you can be the judge. My basic take is: it looks like there may well have been a negative effect of closing a local newspaper on citizens’ civic engagement, but a few more datapoints would be very illuminating. Given a few more years of newspaper closures and US Census data, I guess we’ll get those datapoints. Too bad it’ll cost a bunch of journalists their jobs, and a bunch of citizens their newspaper…

the delinquent blogger awakens…

Over the weekend, the Christian Science Monitor posted the online version of a cover story that they just published about the implications of the demise of newspapers – and the story features some quotes from your truly. By now, it’s old news: newspapers are fading into oblivion around the United States. Big papers like the Seattle PI are gone; big papers likethe New Orleans Times-Picayune are now printing on reduced schedules; even fake big papers like the Daily Planet are feeling the pinch (see above). Even the Christian Science Monitor itself is down to a single weekly edition. Little papers? Also in dire straits. Still, even if we generally know that newspapers are disappearing, we don’t really know what this means for citizens, their communities, and democracy.

I’ve been interested in the effects of the transition in the media system from geographic/proximate media to niche/national media for many years now. This interest was the impetus for my dissertation and it continues to drive much of my research. Jessica Bruder tracked down some of my work, interviewed me, and featured me in her piece for the CSMonitor. The teaser:

The death of newspapers – by cutbacks, outright disappearance, or morphing into lean websites – means a reduction of watchdog reporting and less local information. Some say it has caused a drop in civic participation. Is it a blow to good citizenship?

The piece is well-written, provides some nice anecdotal/human context for the empirical work I do, and gives my work some friendly attention. All in all, pretty nifty.

As a bonus, after the story hit the web yesterday, I was contacted by a community radio station host Arnie Arnesen from 94.7 in Concord, New Hampshire. This morning, I did a 20 minute interview for her program to talk generally about media, newspapers, and communities. The conversation was interesting & lively — I tried not to stray too far from my expertise & only butchered a couple words. (Who knew saying bicyclist could be so hard?) At any rate, Arnie’s a fun host and did a good job making my work & our conversation engaging. I’ve uploaded the 20+ minute segment that I was on here so that it will be preserved for posterity…

PS. I haven’t really posted the research that prompted the CSMonitor article yet; it’s under peer review right now and I guess I’m a bit superstitious. If you Google around, you can find conference versions…

2 New Articles

Nice news for an academic: two articles that I spent a lot of time working on over the past couple of years went to press on literally the same day this past week. Both will be featured in the fall edition of two very nice journals. One comes out of a larger project that I helped two colleagues work on during my post-doc & the other is a solo-authored piece that traces back to my dissertation. In both cases, I am very pleased that the papers are out for the world to see.

The first article, Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation, is co-written with Tali Mendelberg and Chris Karpowitz (and stems from a larger project on deliberation). It’s in the fall edition of the American Political Science Review and details the results of an experiment that focuses on the deliberative interactions of mixed-gender conversation groups. In short, it details how the contributions of men and women differ based upon the group composition and the conditions that structure the conversation. Should be noteworthy to anyone who studies deliberation — or is interested in small-group communication broadly defined.

The second article, Local Political Knowledge and Assessments of Citizen Competence, stems from my dissertation research. This piece compares levels of local and national political knowledge in the same population and relates the findings to the ongoing debate in political science about citizen competence. In short, the idea is that we hold many assumptions about who is knowledgeable about politics — and therefore a ‘competent’ citizen — based on studies of national politics. I feel like these assessments of the public are reductive at best and pejorative at worst — and suggest that local political knowledge is indicative of a kind of competence as well. This article is published in Public Opinion Quarterly and it puts some of my research into a new, relevant context. Curious to see if it generates any reaction…

And now back to the dog days of summer.


our bloated, yet disappearing, local media

The Times published an interesting piece this week about the decline of local TV news. The article, available here, summarized a practice that I was only vaguely aware of: TV stations sharing newsrooms & producing replica newscasts (but with different anchors). Obviously, it’s cheaper to produce a newscast if you don’t have to pay, you know, reporters — and who cares about quality? And, since we live in a socialist state, competition is something we frown upon…wait. Huh?

Anyways, this quote stood out to me:

DuJuan McCoy, the owner of KIDY, said he believed such arrangements were necessary in small markets. It can cost up to $1 million to run a TV news operation in a market the size of San Angelo’s. “It is very difficult, if not impossible, to generate enough revenue to justify the expense for a locally produced newscast,” he said.

Really? $1 million to run a local news broadcast for a town with less than 100k people? I’m positive that I could produce solid local TV news for half, or probably a quarter, of that. In this day and age, when media production has never been more accessible or affordable, this explanation simply isn’t a valid defense of debasing a public good: local news.

If your station can’t produce quality, unique local TV news, then why should it have a free broadcast license? Why should the government prevent competition from companies that would produce unique content?

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Really Rick Perry? Really?

So, I was just flipping through my journal RSS feeds & ran into an interesting article from the last issue of Political Communication. The article (by Shaw & Gimpel) describes the results of a really interesting field experiment that studies the effects of campaign appearances.



In their words:

We seek to pinpoint the magnitude and nature of candidate appearance effects across these different dimensions. The central feature of our project is a major statewide field experiment conducted in the midst of the 2006 gubernatorial campaign in Texas. Incumbent Republican governor Rick Perry allowed us to randomly select the location of his campaign visits for 3 full days, while his polling, fundraising, and organization teams agreed to provide us with detailed information on critical metrics of voter support, financial contributions, and volunteer sign-ups. We also gathered information from local television stations and newspapers to address the role of media coverage of campaign events. To our knowledge, this is the first field experiment conducted in a statewide partisan election with the full cooperation of a major party candidate. As such, we believe it provides a unique and
thought-provoking estimation of appearance effects.

Can you believe this? Rick Perry, in the midst of a real-life gubernatorial campaign, let academics randomly run his campaign visits for 3 days! This is fantastic! Now, I love this choice because it’s a risk and, who knows, it may give Perry an idea about whether or not his events have an effect. This could be a tiny advantage in the contest — and it came without any real $$ cost, right? Plus, as an academic, it suggests that Perry is less anti-intellectual than I expected. And, it stroked my little (big?) academic ego: I might really matter, after all!

But still! This is so crazy! Heck, why not just run an entire campaign via darts & the Texas map next time? Or, when running for president, why campaign in Iowa or NH if the darts take you to Montana and Alabama?