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Penny Abernathy, nation’s foremost researcher and expert on local news deserts, joins Medill as visiting professor

Medill welcomes Penelope “Penny” Muse Abernathy as a visiting professor. Abernathy recently retired from the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media, where she served as the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics.

“Penny is the nation’s foremost authority on the worsening crisis of local news deserts across the U.S.,” said Medill Dean Charles Whitaker. “Her research has chronicled the growing number of communities with no local news source, and it has brought attention to this critical problem and what it means in a self-governed democracy where citizens need news and information to make informed decisions. Medill is committed to providing news outlets with the tools and insights they need to thrive in their communities, and we are delighted to have the opportunity to work with Penny.”

As a journalism professional with more than 30 years of experience as a reporter, editor and senior media business executive, Abernathy specializes in preserving quality journalism by helping news organizations succeed economically in the digital environment. Her research focuses on the implications of the digital revolution for news organizations, the information needs of communities and the emergence of news deserts in the United States.

“Penny’s arrival will help make Medill the nation’s epicenter for local news research and thought leadership at this critical time for the industry,” says Tim Franklin, Medill senior associate dean, professor and the inaugural John M. Mutz Chair in Local News—a first of its kind chair in the nation. “Penny and her research are constantly quoted by national news outlets and cited by scholars studying the challenge of local news deserts and the implications for society.”

The Medill Local News Initiative launched in 2018 to help bolster the sustainability of local news and foster new business models. Since then, the Medill Spiegel Research Center has mined local news audience data in more than 20 markets, and it’s now creating a new Subscriber Engagement Index to help local news organizations grow reader revenue. In addition, Medill’s Knight Lab has conducted field research of local news readers and non-readers to help inform experiments with new tools and approaches to improve reader engagement. Medill also is starting a new Metro Media Lab to help strengthen local news and high school journalism in Chicago.

“I’m delighted to be joining the critically important Local News Initiative and collaborating with Medill colleagues in their efforts to save local journalism,” said Abernathy. While at Medill, she plans to collaborate with the Local News Initiative and Spiegel Research Center on local news-related projects and research. She’ll deliver presentations and talks at national conferences and at the school. And, she’ll write articles for news outlets and scholarly journals that provide new knowledge on the state of local news.

Abernathy is the author of “News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?” — a major 2020 report that documents the state of local journalism, what is as stake for our democracy, and the possibility of reviving the local news landscape, and she is the lead co-author of “The Strategic Digital Media Entrepreneur,” which explores in-depth the emerging business models of successful media enterprises.

Her first book, “Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability,” is based on five years of research, involving more than two dozen newspapers around the country. She is also author of two other major reports: “The Expanding News Deserts,” published in 2018, and “The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts,” published in 2016.

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Medill students provide ‘crucial contributions’ to The Washington Post’s pandemic coverage

In March, the coronavirus was ravaging the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing home in Washington state. Two-thirds of the residents and 50 staff would eventually contract the virus. Dozens would die.

The story of the Life Care Center of Kirkland signaled to a team of students at the Medill Investigative Lab (MIL) at Northwestern University just how vulnerable nursing homes would be to the spread of the virus. With residents and staff unable to socially distance and older individuals having the highest likelihood of developing severe or terminal symptoms, nursing homes would be particularly susceptible.

Having identified this looming crisis, the MIL team sprang into action working with reporters and editors at The Washington Post to develop a data source to track cases of coronavirus at nursing homes across the country. Eventually, that list grew to more than 4,000 facilities and contributed to the coverage in the Post. Medill students worked on more than 15 published stories on the topic.

“The work of student journalists from the Medill School’s investigative program has been crucial in The Post’s ongoing reporting of the pandemic’s tragic impact on nursing home residents,” said Ziva Branstetter, corporate accountability editor at The Washington Post. “These students have provided important data work and have teamed up with Post journalists to tell stories exposing patterns of inequality, waste and lax government oversight at a time when this vulnerable population most needed protection.”

Debbie Cenziper, an associate professor at Medill and the director of the Medill Investigative Lab, also is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who writes for The Washington Post, making the partnership between Medill students and the Post possible. All the stories were completed in the first year of the new lab, which focuses on social justice reporting.

“Like all good journalists, students in the Medill Investigative Lab pivoted quickly in March to write about the devastating impact of COVID-19,” said Cenziper. “Working with a team at The Washington Post and me, they helped tell wrenching stories of illness, loss and love. Lawmakers have called for change. This is what good investigative reporting is all about and I couldn’t be prouder of our talented, passionate and persistent team of journalists.”

“It feels very powerful to be able to do work with this kind of reach and impact,” said Joel Jacobs (MSJ20), a former software engineer who quit his job at Google to pursue investigative journalism and a journalism master’s degree at Medill. “Some of our stories ran on the front page. A few of our articles were republished by my hometown paper, which was definitely a point of personal pride. With all this, there’s also a tremendous feeling of responsibility to make sure we get things right. It can be stressful, but it’s incredibly rewarding.”

With his background in tech, Jacobs dug into federal nursing home data that helped fuel the reporting. “Often, we combined different datasets,” said Jacobs. “Combining nursing home inspection records with our list of homes with outbreaks provided the backbone for our story on the history of infection control issues in nursing homes with coronavirus cases. We also compared outbreak data with demographic data on nursing homes for a story on the disproportionate impact on majority-Black nursing homes.”

Those health disparities resonated with Sidnee King (MSJ20) who set out to tell the story of the coronavirus in a predominantly Black nursing home. She chose a home steps from the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta. Her story combined the history of the Sweet Auburn Historic District with the story of a nurse trying to care for more than 100 residents.

“When Debbie told us that we’d spend the quarter covering coronavirus in nursing homes, it wasn’t long before I got curious about how the virus was impacting Black elderly residents,” said King. “I’d seen how the virus had impacted my own family and community and knew that Black people, in general, were being disparately affected by the pandemic. So as the ongoing national conversation about racial justice grew more prevalent, I really wanted to highlight how even in nursing homes, Black Americans are disadvantaged by systemic racism.”

You can view a full list of student coverage of the pandemic in The Washington Post on the Medill Investigative Lab website.

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Medill Degrees are Now STEM Certified

Medill degrees are now designated as STEM degrees based on a program review from Northwestern’s Office of the Registrar that provided updated CIP Codes. This includes Medill’s bachelor’s and master’s of science degrees in journalism and its master’s of science in integrated marketing communications."Medill Degrees Are Now STEM Certified" on la purple background showing interconnected nodes of light

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. STEM designation provides F-1 international students with a possible 24-month employment extension of a 12-month Optional Practical Training (OPT) authorization. Domestic students also benefit as STEM skills are sought by employers.

“Medill’s programs prepare tomorrow’s journalists and marketers, and STEM skills are essential to leading in the media industry,” said Medill Dean Charles Whitaker. “This new designation will position our graduates to demonstrate these important skills to employers who are eager to have them.”

Medill’s degrees are included under the “Digital Communications and Media/Multimedia” code (09.0702).

To learn more, visit the Northwestern Office of International Student Services.

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‘Nonvoters 2020: Counted Out’ examines reasons 80 million Americans opted out of presidential election

Medill and National Public Radio have partnered to release a national survey of nonvoters Tuesday (Dec. 15) that, despite record high turnout for the November presidential election, found that most nonvoters did not cite impediments to going to the polls but instead chose not to vote due to widespread feelings of political alienation and apathy.

As the percentage of nonvoters narrowed to the smallest proportion in 120 years, the 80 million Americans who didn’t vote in 2020 had deep-seated reasons for not casting ballots.

The survey of 1,103 nonvoters and 740 voters conducted by Ipsos from Nov. 4 to Nov. 13 found that those who didn’t vote in the 2020 election are set in their belief that voting just doesn’t matter. Four out of five people polled last month said they made the choice not to vote. Only 18% said something prevented them from casting a ballot in 2020.

The majority of nonvoters — 70% — were not registered to vote in 2020, but only 29% of this year’s nonvoters surveyed said that not being registered was their main reason for skipping the election. The others cited reasons for abstaining such as a lack of interest in the election, the feeling that their vote wouldn’t make a difference or a general dislike for the candidates instead of any problems with the voting process itself.

“The 2020 nonvoters appear hardened in their beliefs and less likely than in past nonvoter surveys we’ve conducted to be lured to the voting booth in the future,” said William F. Thomas Professor of Journalism Ellen Shearer, who also is bureau chief for Medill’s Washington Program. Graduate students in the Washington Program, under the direction of Shearer and Assistant Professor Matthew Orr, worked with NPR and Ipsos to develop the survey questionnaire.

The Medill students used the survey results to delve deeper into the nonvoting phenomenon by interviewing some of the nonvoters surveyed, as well as experts and activists to give voice to people often ignored by campaigns and candidates. Their stories can be found at The NPR story also featured Medill stories within.

“It’s really remarkable that despite record turnout, 80 million people still didn’t vote, and they are disaffected and disengaged,” said Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent for NPR. “There is a clear disconnect between what happens in Washington and what happens in these Americans’ lives. They don’t see how politics makes a difference.”

Nonvoters in 2020 were twice as likely as voters to believe that it makes no difference who is elected president, and about three times as likely to think that “I’m only one person, so my vote doesn’t make a difference.”

Over half of nonvoters said they believed that who was elected president made no difference — more than double the number of voters who said the same. This is a much larger opinion gap than the one that existed between voters and nonvoters in 2012, hinting at a deeper level of apathy among 2020’s nonvoters.

The survey showed that nonvoters tend to associate with other nonvoters, while voters socialize with other voters. Less than one-third of nonvoters said that most of their friends or family voted in the 2020 election compared with over 80% of voters.

In addition to their stories, the Medill students also designed the website and created a podcast, videos and graphics.

“We felt it was important to have conversations with some nonvoters and learn more about why they didn’t vote,” said Orr. “In doing so, the students have put together a compelling package of multimedia stories.”

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Tom Perrotta (BSJ98)

By Jason Gay for the Wall Street Journal

Our friend Tom Perrotta died Wednesday, January 6, 2021, at age 44, and if you never got a chance to meet him, all I can say is I wish you had. 

If you read this newspaper, you got to know Tom through his tennis reporting, which was smart and thorough, rich with the sort of detail you don’t notice unless you’re around the sport all the time, which Tom was. Tom was always there, which was how he got to know Roger Federer. It’s how he knew Serena Williams, too. But he also knew the many players who never cracked the top 400, as well as the parents, coaches, trainers, umpires, and all the employees behind the scenes who make the tournaments happen. Tennis has a lot more of those people than it does legends and superheroes, and every one of them was important to Tom. 

The man himself? He was aces. Tom was the Journal’s top writer at all the major tennis events, which meant that when the match ended — the moment when Federer raised his arms in triumph, or Rafael Nadal rolled to the red dirt in disbelief — it was Tom’s job to immediately render what happened and hit the send button, within a few minutes. There is pressure in that job. People can freak out. It isn’t uncommon, at a big sporting event, to see a reporter comically lose it on deadline. Tom didn’t lose it. He was unflappable, kind to colleagues and competitors, even when crunching a deadline. You could walk up to him right as a match concluded — he’d be typing away, an editor breathing down his neck, and you could ask him something unrelated, something totally unnecessary, like who won the Australian Open in 2009, and what time was the next LIRR back to Penn Station, and Tom would pause for a second, and say: I think that year was Rafa and Serena. And I’m pretty sure there’s a train at 9:33. Then click! He’d hit send on his own piece, which was always magic, a standard we aspired to. 

Here’s a little secret about what it’s like to cover one of those major tennis tournaments: It’s just as great as it sounds. It isn’t like the job doesn’t have its hassles, or bad days, but most of the time, it feels like you’re getting away with something. Tom had the fortune to come up at a time when tennis had ascended to an epic moment, surrounded by icons like Venus and Serena, Roger and Rafa, Andy and Novak. He had a front-row seat to a generation of players who will be talked about 100 years from now. Sometimes, I would catch Tom’s eye during one of those crazy matches, when the players were cramping, going back and forth like  prizefighters, and the stadium felt like it was about to lift off from all the crowd energy, and he’d give me this look that said: I can’t believe we get to do this. How lucky are we?

He got sick, diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 40, and he fought and fought, rallying that first season to make it to the U.S. Open, and then do nearly a full calendar of majors. The job got harder, which frustrated him, but what anchored him was his family: his wife, Rachel, and his two sons, Paul and Sean. They were everything to him. Over the past year, Tom often told me he was grateful for how the world had slowed down a bit, because it meant he could be at home with his family, a feeling he described in his final piece for the Journal. He was so young, and he’d been dealt a terribly unfair hand — it angered him; he confided that, too — but there were still moments he felt like a lucky guy. 

Tom Perrotta in Paris

This is how I want to remember him: This was a few years ago, in Paris, amid the French Open — he’d been through a wave of treatments, and he was feeling better, more himself, and leaving Roland Garros in the early evening, he was excited, because Rachel had flown into town. Tom picked out this place for all of us to go to dinner, not far from the Champs-Élysées, and we waited outside for a table for what seemed like hours, but we didn’t care, because it was one of those June twilights when the sun wasn’t in any kind of hurry, and more important: Rachel was here! Tom was so happy. Who could complain? A retired tennis pro walked by on the sidewalk, and Tom walked over and said a quick hello. It felt like Tom’s town, even if it wasn’t. 

We sat down to dinner, late, and the meal went on and on, with dessert, and maybe a little more dessert, because why not? No one says this sort of thing in the moment, but in the back of your mind, you’re thinking: How many nights like this are we going to get? 

When we finally paid the check and stepped outside, it was dark, and it was now raining, in the dreamy way you hope it rains in Paris. I asked Tom if he thought they were going to be able to play tennis tomorrow, and he said, who knows, he’d be there. He was always there. He smiled, and then he and Rachel walked off into the rain.