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Medill’s Local News Initiative leaders discuss findings, future plans

Photo by Andrew Skwish
Story by Thea Showalter (BSJ22)

Amidst a national crisis for local news organizations, Medill is seeking ways to save and strengthen the local news industry through the Local News Initiative (LNI), a groundbreaking project that aims to diagnose the challenges facing smaller news organizations and develop solutions.

For the past year and a half, Medill has collaborated with three newspapers, receiving hard-to-get data to analyze in exchange for providing the papers with crucial research on how to navigate the changing terrain of news media.

“LNI is developing new insights into reader behavior that is helping local news organizations grow their numbers of digital subscribers,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean of Medill and leader of the Local News Initiative. “This work is critically important now as local news organizations pivot from an advertising-supported business model to one focused on reader revenue.”

Newspapers have historically made the vast majority of their revenue from advertising, according to Associate ProfessorTom Collinger, Executive Director of the Medill IMC Spiegel Digital & Database Research Center. But as the habits of readers change, news organizations are increasingly depending on revenue from subscribers, not advertisers, leading to a pressing need to understand subscriber behavior.

In the fall of 2018, researchers from Medill’s Spiegel Research Center received 13 terabytes of subscriber data from its three partner papers— the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Indianapolis Star (Indy Star). The data would help the researchers probe questions about local news readership that had never before been answered.

“I’m especially proud that the analytical work that we have been doing is work that in many other industries would be easily available now online,” Collinger said.

But understanding local news subscriber behavior was far from easy. Researchers at The Spiegel Research Center had to merge two vast sets of data— subscriber data and clickstream data— to map how individual subscribers behaved when reading online.

In February of 2019, LNI came out with initial findings: in order to keep readers as digital subscribers, news organizations must encourage them to develop a regular reading habit and provide unique local content to make their subscription valuable.

Over the summer and fall of 2019, Franklin, along with Spiegel Research Center Director and Professor Ed Malthouse, presented LNI findings at the annual conferences for the Newspaper Association Managers, News Leaders Association, and Online News Association.

“We’ve gotten a whole lot of publicity on this,” said Malthouse. “It’s been very satisfying to see the work take off like this.”

For the Chicago Tribune, partnering with the LNI has provided an “outsider’s perspective” on audience data that, alongside the Tribune’s internal data analysis, has helped to “paint a broad picture of what content areas are the most valuable” to readers, said Christine Taylor, managing editor of audience at the Tribune.

The findings have shown the Tribune that its readers are “overwhelmingly” smartphone readers, prompting the Tribune to focus on its app in 2020, and explore tools to boost mobile engagement.

“It forces us to think about how we prepare and produce our content to meet those readers,” said Taylor. “It just makes us think differently about our deadlines— it makes us think differently about how we construct our stories. It’s really forcing the newsroom to just think very differently about how it approaches content.”

A year after the LNI began working with the subscription data, the LNI won a Google Innovation Award in October 2019 in order to build what is called a “subscriber engagement index,” a digital tool that will show local newspapers how their actions are impacting their subscribers in real time.

A newspaper that shares its data with the index will be able to see how its subscribers behave compared to other papers using various metrics, and how those behaviors contribute to retention and subscription rates.

“That’s where we’re going. We’re building this out as we speak,” said Collinger. “And it’s a significant piece of data work….The industry has never seen anything like this.”

In the next few months, LNI will also examine the “finances of customer retention,” said Malthouse. Finding strategies to encourage a reader to subscribe to a newspaper is only the first step.

“If you have a new customer, you have to nurture that relationship,” said Malthouse. “Teaching the news organizations how to take this new customer and nurture that relationship, and turn that person into a regular reader who values your content is the name of the game. So that, I think, is going to be a big part of where we go.”

Collinger added that Medill is uniquely qualified to lead the way on local news research, because the Local News Initiative is a product of all the programs that make Medill different.

“Medill uniquely has a world class journalism program and a world class integrated marketing communication program, and the integration of the best of those two things made this possible,” said Collinger. “It is not what makes Medill the same, but what makes us different in complementary ways that has allowed this to be such a wonderful expression of where we believe media is going.”

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Medill student internship research project findings in the Chicago Tribune

Employers, don’t cancel those internships — make them remote

By Melissa Santoyo (BSJ23)

When COVID-19 first hit the U.S., I was extremely fortunate that the pandemic only ruined the spring quarter of my freshman year and my summer study-abroad plans. But as a low-income, first-generation college student, I scrambled to find something to fill the few months of vacation. Because whereas my wealthier peers could probably afford to spend a summer unemployed, I am constantly racing against the clock, asking myself, “How long do I have until graduation and what can I do to make sure I’ll be hired after that?”

I am the daughter of Cuban immigrants, and I inherited their tenacity. My hunger to succeed is the product of growing up in a country that seems to constantly work against people like me. So, I scoured the internet for summer internships to keep busy, to hone marketable skills, to move forward.

After 30 emails to editors at various publications, I scored an unpaid internship — and an outside scholarship.

I know that, as a student at a private institution, I am incredibly privileged to be able to take up such a summer task. But still, I urge employers to keep internship opportunities available for students, even if they must be remote. Otherwise, as in my case, many of us wouldn’t have access to professional connections.

As a student collaborator on the well-regarded internship program at Northwestern University, I see firsthand the value of on-the-job experience. But earlier this year, when our journalism residency director Karen Springen and I started a small journalism research project called The Intern Factor, we quickly realized hands-on experience outside of the classroom is even more important than we thought. Of the 1,156 alumni of the Medill School of Journalism who responded to a short online survey, 683 gave the top rating (“very valuable”) to their internships’ ability to help them find meaningful full-time employment.

That makes it even more upsetting that many internships have been rescinded, albeit for a good reason (a global pandemic). A poll by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 22% of employers were revoking their offers to interns this summer, and a Yello survey found that more than a third of students said their offer was canceled.

“I can’t fathom what those students are going through now,” says Gustavo Paredes, who works in client services at a technology company and interned for a Buenos Aires newspaper in 2019 through a Northwestern University program covered by his financial aid. “My experience played a pivotal role in where I am.”

Without a college internship at what is now called Florida Today, “I wouldn’t have landed that first job,” says Northwestern alum Scot O’Hara, who currently works in financial-industry communications. “It made all the difference in the world.”

We understand why companies are canceling their summer internships. After all, hiring managers are often unsure of their own jobs and of their ability to give students a good “remote” experience.

Still, the rescinders quickly earned some bad social media PR while the keepers (including PepsiCo and Apple) earned high praise and gratitude. Paredes’ employer decided to still hire a dozen summer 2020 interns, who are working remotely. “People like myself said, ‘These internships play a pivotal role for these young adults,’” he says.

Internships are a two-way street. Young people get training, experience, connections and, in the case of journalists, published “clips.” But their older bosses arguably get even more from the deal. Their students bring fresh ideas and tech savvy, teaching their on-the-job mentors how to, say, build a line graph on a Google spreadsheet. Interns offer important insight into Gen Z tools such as TikTok and Snapchat. They also help fill in when regular employees are on vacation or family leave. And, perhaps most important, they bring the energy of youth. “I find the enthusiasm that the interns bring is even a bigger payoff,” says O’Hara. “It just revitalizes the whole department.”

Sure, coronavirus-caused remote internships aren’t ideal. It’s nicer for students to sit in person next to experienced reporters and editors, overhearing how they conduct interviews, bumping into them in the elevator and grabbing coffee with them. But the cancelers forgot that most young people are extraordinarily flexible and willing to Slack and Zoom.

My own remote internship has so far been an incredible learning experience. Not only is my work being published, but I’m learning about the intricacies of journalism outside of the Medill classroom. From hunting down PR contacts to working a 9-to-5 schedule, there are things J-school can’t teach.

“If the college curriculum gave me the basics and the tool kit, the internships gave me the opportunity to really build,” said Gina Mangieri, a TV reporter in Hawaii who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Medill and completed six internships. “If you can’t actually go do it and practice it, you’re not going to learn everything you need to learn in the classroom.”

During internships, students typically discover their interests, their strengths and their passions. They learn to pitch their own ideas and to be proactive. They also learn about how corporations do (or don’t) follow their mission statements. They learn to feel more confident in their abilities. And during this short period of professional experience, they figure out what they like, and don’t like, doing.

Students often realize they love — or hate — a city like New York. They see that they like researching better than writing — or vice versa. They learn to multitask, get up early, keep to a tight schedule and talk to people. Dream jobs change. They get a clear idea of what they’d like to do after graduation. They see what matters to bosses: attention to detail, dedication, hard work.

Despite bright spots like Report for America (similar to Teach for America), there need to be more places where young people can make connections and also figure out who they are and who they want to be.

After all, soon the Class of COVID-19 and its immediate successors will be the bosses.

Melissa Santoyo is a rising sophomore at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

 

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Survey Reveals That Americans Overwhelmingly Support Freedom of the Press, but Many do not Trust the U.S. News Media

Trust in news media remains tepid with just above half of Americans saying the media is trustworthy, rising only two percentage points from December 2019, according to a new survey by Medill and The Harris Poll.

Americans overwhelming agree that freedom of speech is one of the values that makes the country great and freedom of the press is essential for American democracy; even so, four in 10 say the news media is the “enemy of the people.” Majorities of Americans say the news media are too negative in their reporting and that they report “fake news.” That said, significantly fewer Americans in May compared with December agree that the media reports fake news, suggesting that trust in media is improving in the COVID-19 era. In fact, nearly two-thirds say they trust information about COVID-19 provided by the news media, much more than the 55 percent who trust the information about COVID-19 provided in White House briefings.

Charles Whitaker, dean of Northwestern’s Medill School, said, “This research is a timely snapshot with fresh data on one of journalism’s most critical challenges, that of trust by the audience and larger public. The findings underscore public reliance on professional journalism while wary of social media.”

“The report especially opens the aperture on trust, which in U.S. news media is often narrowly cast in one’s politics and world view. This has been no ordinary year in the face of COVID, racial equality and economic/ cultural fallout with Americans receptive to science, public health and local media,” says John Gerzema, Medill alumnus and CEO of The Harris Poll.

The survey was conducted December 9-11, 2019, and repeated May 27-29, 2020, on behalf of Medill by The Harris Poll. Both polls were conducted online among roughly 2,000 nationally representative adults.

The research was organized and overseen by Everette E. Dennis and Klaus Schoenbach, well-known media researchers, authors and educators. Dennis is professor of journalism at the Medill School and formerly dean and CEO at Northwestern’s campus in Doha, Qatar (NU-Q). Schoenbach, a former senior associate dean at NU-Q, is a distinguished adjunct professor there and honorary professor at Zeppelin University in Germany.

Results for the study’s first wave were completed before the COVID-19 pandemic began, so Dennis and Schoenbach decided to do a second wave to see whether the national lockdown caused an uptick in media use or had influenced change in public perceptions of the news media.  Importantly, the study was conducted two days after the death of George Floyd at the outset of national demonstrations.

As Dennis put it, “Public attitudes toward the news media are as polarized as the country itself, mostly along partisan lines and threatening to the idea of an informed citizenry.  We wanted to see whether reliance on media during the pandemic would alter that perception.  In some significant ways, it did so with regard to some media outlets and news sources.”

Key Findings from the report include:

  • Americans give the news media a tepid endorsement, viewed simultaneously as a friend and foe. There is a wide political divide in perceptions of the media, and the gap has expanded over time.
    • 55% of Americans trust the news media, up 2 percentage points from December, ranking the media behind such organizations as the medical community, banks, car manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies.
    • Democrats are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to agree that the news media is trustworthy (77% Democrats vs. 36% Republicans).
    • On the other hand, 41% of Americans describe the news media as the enemy of the people, down 2 points from December.
    • Nearly six in 10 Americans believe the media report fake news, but this is down significantly from December (65% December vs. 58% May).
  • Almost all Americans say they support freedom of speech and freedom of the press. At the same time, many would like to suppress media that don’t support their own views.
    • 61% agree reporters should be shielded from prosecution by the Trump administration (63% in December).
    • But 40% agree the president should have the authority to close down news outlets engaged in bad behavior (39% in December), and 29% in both waves say President Trump should close down certain media like CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
  • There is a strong distrust of news on social media, yet many still get their news from social media.
    • 82% are concerned about what is real or fake on the internet (85% in December), and only 33% both waves say they trust news on social media.
    • Yet 42% get news on social media each week, jumping to 54% among Millennials and 62% among Gen Z.
  • Most Americans trust information about COVID-19 provided by public health experts. Trust in news media and briefings by the White House and President Trump are split down party lines.
    • For information about COVID-19, 83% trust public health experts, 63% trust news media and 55% trust White House briefings.
    • By party affiliation, 85% of Republicans vs. 19% of Democrats trust President Trump, while 85% of Democrats vs. 44% of Republicans trust news media for information about COVID-19.
  • Americans have more respect in journalists as a profession than they do in media as an institution.
    • Two-thirds of Americans say they respect journalists, unchanged from December. That puts journalists behind doctors, medical scientists, military personnel, teachers, police officers and the clergy, but ahead of entertainer/actors and members of Congress.
    • Democrats are much more likely to respect journalists (85%) than Independents (59%) and Republicans (51%).
  • Respect for the military and police officers has decreased from December to May, with a significant decline for police, which likely is a reaction to the recent killings of African Americans including George Floyd.
    • 42% of Americans respect police officers very much, down 9 percentage points from 51% in December.
    • While this decrease in respect is observed among Black and White respondents and across political affiliations, respect for police has fallen more among Black Americans, dropping 16 points to 60%.

A complete 60-page report including detailed findings from the Trust in U.S. News Media survey can be found here.

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Two Major Industry Players Join Medill’s New Subscriber Index

By Mark Jacob

Two major news industry organizations, McClatchy and Mather Economics, have signed on to the new Medill Subscriber Engagement Index, a tool designed to give local news outlets more actionable intelligence on their readers than ever before.

McClatchy, one of the nation’s largest local news chains, is providing data from its 30 local outlets, including such well-known outlets as the Miami Herald, Charlotte Observer, Kansas City Star and Sacramento Bee, according to Shannan Bowen, McClatchy’s Director of Product Engagement.

Mather Economics, which manages subscriber information for many of the world’s top news outlets, “is in the process of getting many of its 500-plus North American newspaper clients to participate in the index,” said Mather President Matt Lindsay.

The subscriber engagement index, developed by Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center, will allow participants to better understand which aspects of their online content are boosting the acquisition and retention of subscribers and which are leading to dropped subscriptions. This is vital intelligence at a time when local outlets are shifting from reliance on advertising dollars to a greater emphasis on reader revenue.

The index, expected to be ready in early 2021, will allow newsrooms to measure their performance against other news outlets participating in the index, highlighting best practices. And it will offer a groundbreaking feature: a ‘What-If” tool that will use current data to forecast how specific strategic actions would affect a news organization’s financial bottom line.

“Our goal was to make the Medill Index a go-to place where local news organizations could measure and benchmark their performance in growing reader revenue,” said Tim Franklin, who is Senior Associate Dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “Our partnerships with Mather Economics and McClatchy will help make the Medill Index a unique, robust, indispensable tool for many local news outlets who will now have unparalleled insights into the behaviors of their paying readers. Eventually, we hope to have hundreds of local news organizations be part of the Index.

The index is part of Northwestern’s Medill Local News Initiative, a project headed by Franklin that promotes financial sustainability for local journalism in challenging times. Development of the index is being funded by a grant from the Google Innovation Challenge program.

Jonathan Copulsky, Spiegel’s Executive Director, said the research center was thrilled to partner with McClatchy and Mather.

“McClatchy is a leading publisher of local news in this country,” Copulsky said. “Mather is well regarded in the industry. They’ve got relationships with a number of publishers. They’ve got a commercial engine for data gathering and data ingestion, organization and reporting.”

Shannan Bowen, Director of Product Engagement at McClatchy.

McClatchy’s Bowen is especially upbeat about the ability to do benchmarking with other media companies and share best practices.

“We’re drawn to this tool because it’s going to help us learn from other news companies participating in the index,” Bowen said. “… And we’re also excited about trying a tool that anyone in our company can use, from journalists or marketing teams or product teams. All of our different groups are aligned with our mission to grow digital subscriptions and reduce churn.”

“Our editors [are] asking about when they might be able to get their hands on it,” she said. “They’re really excited. I’m excited about what I’ve seen about the user interface. It seems really easy to use.”

Mather’s Lindsay said his firm’s clients include Gannett and MediaNews Group, two of the nation’s largest local news publishers.  While talks with clients about data sharing are ongoing, Mather is bringing more than just data, Lindsay said. Mather also is offering analytical expertise that could make Medill’s What-If tool even more effective.

Matt Lindsay, President of Mather Economics.

“We provide a lot of predictive analytics and A-B testing of recommended tactics, so we can say here’s what we believe will happen if you market this type of subscription offer or you have this type of retention campaign,” Lindsay said. “And then we validate our forecasts with A-B testing. With Medill and its really smart people, we can form hypotheses about reader reactions to content and test those hypotheses with A-B testing. We can help our clients implement those tests and then observe the results. It would be great if we could facilitate sharing in terms of, ‘Here’s some great innovation that we’ve discovered in this part of the industry.’ And we could anonymize those test results and insights and share them with the rest of the industry.”

Copulsky said Spiegel is open to collaborating with other partners as well. His email address is jonathan.copulsky@northwestern.edu.

Article image: Data Mining Vectors by Vecteezy

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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 www.nonvoters2020.com. 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.”