Q&A with Fiona Morgan on the state of Triangle media

Fiona Morgan is a graduate student seeking a master’s degree in public policy at Duke University. She has more than 10 years of experience as an editor and reporter, most recently at the Independent Weekly in Durham, N.C. As part of her graduate studies, Morgan recently completed an in-depth look at the news media in the Triangle region of North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Morgan discusses her research and conclusions.

Q. What is the purpose of this study, and how did you go about researching it?

A. The idea behind this study was to look as comprehensively as possible at all of the ways in which people who live in the Triangle can access information about their communities, from conventional print and broadcast news to blogs to neighborhood listservs and libraries. The study is a broad, qualitative look at who provides news and public affairs information, where those outlets are, and, as best we can determine, where people get their news.

This study is a project of the Media Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. The Media Policy Initiative is a relatively new project that kicked off last spring under the broader umbrella of New America’s Open Technology Initiative. The staff and fellows of MPI produce and analyze research on policy and regulatory reforms that can foster media that contributes to a democratic society. The framework of much of this research comes from the Knight Commission Report Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, and the Knight Foundation funds MPI.

The Triangle report is one of several community reports MPI has produced. They’ve also looked at Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle, Washington, and Scranton, Pa. Each of these reports presents a unique approach. For instance, the Minneapolis report incorporates a lot of content analysis, which mine does not. The thing that connects them is the idea of looking at a specific community as the unit of analysis.

A lot of discussion about media policy tends to focus on specific policy questions: What should the Federal Communications Commission do about white spaces in the broadcast spectrum? What I really like about MPI’s approach was the idea of looking at all the policies – federal, state, and local – that affect a specific community and examining how they function of a piece.

Most journalism is committed locally, at small newspapers and radio and TV stations. Most Americans are more affected by whether anyone is left to cover the local school board than they are by The New York Times’ financial troubles. That’s why it’s important to remind policymakers in Washington that communities, not the industry itself, are what matters most.

In writing the report, I started with what I knew from my experience as a reporter covering local media for the Independent Weekly, the Triangle’s alternative newsweekly. I had written about the sale of Durham’s hometown newspaper, The Herald-Sun, to the Paxton chain. I had written about layoffs at our metropolitan daily newspaper, The News & Observer.

I also wrote about the state video franchise legislation and its impact on public access channels and broadband Internet competition. I searched the FCC’s web site for every broadcast license in the area, then I used the Internet and phone interviews and reporting produced by other media outlets.

I tried to answer basic questions about each media outlet: Who owns what? Who is the audience? How many readers or viewers do they have? What geographic area do they cover? What sort of stories do they produce? How have the answers to these questions changed over time, and why? If conventional media outlets are producing less news, are blogs or other outlets filling the gaps? Which outlets are struggling with sustainability, and why?

I did not have access to proprietary data, so I relied a lot on interviews, which was very time intensive but a lot of fun.

Q. What are your major findings and recommendations?

I was not surprised to find that our media market is somewhat unusual in the prominence of our locally owned outlets. Not only is WRAL the leading TV station, WRAL.com is also by far the most popular news website in the market. It’s rare for a local TV station to draw a larger audience than the local newspaper online.

I was somewhat surprised to find that print newspapers, particularly those that target small communities, are holding steady in terms of circulation. In fact, there are two print startups, the Carrboro Citizen and the Garner Citizen (no relation, as they say), that seem to be expanding while producing strong local journalism.

There some good quality blogs out there with loyal audiences. Some of those bloggers do it purely out of a sense of civic duty and have no interest in quitting their day jobs, but others are interested in being entrepreneurs. It’s still unclear whether there’s enough potential revenue for them to take the leap.

I was disappointed to find that new media outlets do not reflect the racial and cultural diversity in the Triangle. For instance, it’s astonishing that in Durham, a city with as many African-American residents as white residents and a proud history of racial diversity, there isn’t a greater online presence for the African-American community or a blogger covering local government from that point of view. That’s a case where I hope I missed something.

There’s a long section on UNC-TV in which I discuss the various policies that have led to that station’s current problems. In short, I conclude the station needs more structural and financial independence, and its management needs to decide whether to embrace their role as a news organization. I also consider the way state policies have made it difficult for public access channels to succeed.

I’d like to see the sort of institutions that bolster conventional media’s ability to provide watchdog reporting extended to online entrepreneurs and bloggers. The legal resources provided by the North Carolina Press Association are a huge asset to any newspaper that’s trying to wrest public records from an uncooperative administration. The NCPA and other groups also provided low-cost training and continuing education for reporters.

These are things that could improve the quality of blogs and make them more sustainable. While doing so may seem to counterintuitive, since online outlets ostensibly compete with print outlets, consider that reporters and editors increasingly rely on blogs for tips and even content, to some extent.

It would also be interesting to see if some citizen journalism curriculum could be added to the neighborhood college model. Neighborhood colleges, as I discuss in the report, are opportunities for citizens to learn how their local governments work. The Triangle has a number of programs, which groom local civic leaders. They learn how to mediate between their neighbors and town or city officials. Why not teach them how to communicate more broadly, either as bloggers or as better sources to professional journalists?

Q. You suggest that local ownership makes for better local journalism. Yet media companies such as McClatchy and Media General are consolidating news coverage and creating “editing hubs” that seem to run counter to that idea. What is behind this disconnect?

I think media companies such as those you mention are trying to find the best way to cope with budget cuts and limited resources. With regard to consolidated news coverage, editors are trying to make up for what they provide less of, local on-the-ground reporting, by providing more of what they do have, which is content from other places – I’m thinking of those Charlotte stories in the N&O.

There is a valid case to be made that, given the limitations, it may be best not to send a reporter from each paper to cover the same sporting event, for instance. That case gets weaker when you’re talking about news stories that need local context.

With regard to the “editing hubs,” I’ve heard people point out that managers face a choice: either cut editors and production staff and keep reporters, or keep reporters and production and cut reporters. The message seems to be, wouldn’t you rather keep reporters on the ground?

I guess I agree with that thinking, but I worry that we devalue editors at our peril. First of all, many editors write, especially at local papers. Second, editors are the keepers of a community’s institutional memory. Not only do they keep reporters from making mistakes, good editors know enough of the context to push reporters to ask deeper questions and place a story in context for readers, which is something journalists are in a unique position to do. This is especially important when the reporters are new the community. Every time I hear that a veteran editor or copy editor has left a newspaper, I feel like we’re losing more of a vital information resource.

In a broader sense, the idea that local ownership makes for better local journalism remains an empirical question, but I do think the study’s findings tend to validate the theoretical reasons that would be true: A local owner can distinguish their news product in the marketplace by stressing their local presence, local identity and investment in local content.

That’s certainly true of Curtis Media. When WPTF’s Clear Channel-owned competitor changed to a talk news format and contracted to run Rush Limbaugh’s program, Curtis chose to reconfigure its programming around originally produced state and local news. It will be interesting to see whether WPTF’s experiment is rewarded by the market.

Also, economic theory tells us that news coverage, especially accountability journalism, has positive externalities, which is to say that it benefits the local community in ways that the news organization can’t possibly be compensated for through the market. I benefit from investigative reporting that exposes corruption whether or not I read the story. A local owner reaps some of those benefits because he or she lives in that community; therefore, local ownership provides a bit more incentive.

It’s true that large news organizations have may resources available that are much harder for a small, independent organization to provide. I’m thinking particularly of access to research tools and databases, subscriptions to wire services, etc. There is an economy of scale at work in that regard. However, chain-owned media outlets like The News & Observer are facing the needs of their corporate owners to service a very large debt.

Q. You’re in graduate school to investigate the big question of “how we will pay for journalism and what journalism will look like in the coming years.” What are your thoughts about that after completing this study, and what further research is needed?

A. Well, I’m afraid I still don’t know the answer to either of those questions. But I’ve definitely seen my perspective on these questions evolve since I went to graduate school.

In reporting on how changes in the media and technology industries were playing out on the ground, I got very interested in what sort of policies affected the media and people’s access to it. In the United States, we like to think that the First Amendment means government simply plays no role in the media, or that it should keep its “hands off,” whatever that means.

But the reality is, many policies affect the media: open records and open meetings laws, libel law, broadcast licensing, copyright, even which enterprises the Internal Revenue Service considers legitimately tax-exempt. I also think of both media and policy broadly enough to include the impact of, for instance, public libraries, foundation funding, and the role of public education.

Journalists tend to be proud autodidacts. It’s part of the ethos of our tribe that we’re resourceful; we can jump into an assignment and teach ourselves what we need to know to cover it. But I started to realize, as many journalists do, that if I wanted to seriously pursue these questions, I needed to get a more formal education in economics and government.

Another reason I decided to go to graduate school is a bit more personal. About the tenth or twelfth time I interviewed a reporter who’d just been laid off, I started thinking, “You know, I should probably think about my own future.” I could see the writing on the wall, because I was putting it there.

Ultimately, my thinking was, either a graduate education in something like public policy will make me a much better reporter, or it will give me some additional options in case being a reporter isn’t something I choose to do, or isn’t a choice that’s open to me.

Then I read James Hamilton’s book “All the News That’s Fit to Sell,” which is an economist’s explanation of why the media business functions as it does and why it faces the crisis it does. That book made a huge impression on me and started me down the path toward graduate school. Now Professor Hamilton is my academic advisor, and I’m having the time of my life. I mean, I get very little sleep and all that, but I feel so fortunate to be able to take this time to learn.

Right now we’re getting a lot of feedback on the case, so in version 2.0 I hope to add pieces information and perspectives that may be missing or need fleshing out. I also want to deal with more concrete policy recommendations, which I hope will be informed by this round of feedback and conversation among people in the community. It may also be affected by recommendations and policies that are expected to come out from the FCC and the FTC in the coming months.

For my own research, I want to look more closely at specific communities within the Triangle and examine why some have more accountability coverage than others. I’m curious about what economic factors contribute to that information divide, and what the impact is on the people who live there.

Read the full report (PDF) and follow Fiona Morgan on Twitter.

UPDATE: Morgan is now a researcher with the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University.

4 thoughts on “Q&A with Fiona Morgan on the state of Triangle media”

  1. First,
    Thank you Fiona for sharing where your trajectory has taken you since leaving the Indy. I am particularly interested in your idea of translating the city college model in such a way as to invest local citizens even more into how and where there news is covered. That sounds very cool and very worthwhile.
    As a blogger, I take my writing very seriously but am often pining for an “editor” or at least someone who could consistently improve my efforts. Teamwork is better work and I bet there are others out there who would pay a monthly fee to be read/revised/coached as they spread their blogger wings. Cloud editors.com? just throwing it out there b/c as you know there are lots of qualified journalists out there looking for work….unfortunately.

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