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.


Stormy weather in print

When it comes to covering hurricanes, broadcast media have a tremendous advantage over their print counterparts.

TV can cover the storms live and show their latest locations. Back in the day, Dan Rather could stand on a beach amid wind and rain as viewers sat and watched in their living rooms.

Newspapers, on the other hand, struggle with storms. The latest forecasts that go to print at midnight and land on readers’ driveways at dawn are already out of date. So are the maps that show a hurricane’s location and projected path.

That’s why I was surprised this morning while watching the Weather Channel as I got ready for work. I wanted to get the latest information on Hurricane Earl.

One reporter on North Carolina’s Outer Banks concluded her live coverage by holding up today’s edition of the Virginian-Pilot and pointing out the photo at the top of the page. The next reporter, standing on a sunny beach in Massachusetts, began his story by showing the front page of the Cape Cod newspaper and used it to describe preparations in the area.

At least these broadcasters are giving credit where it’s due. But the image of Weather Channel reporters holding up print newspapers to support their coverage is odd. Can’t they do their own work?

Q&A with Tyler Dukes of N.C. State student media

Tyler Dukes is the production assistant for student media at N.C. State University in Raleigh. Prior to taking this job this summer, Dukes was a Web producer for cable news station News 14 Carolina. He also has experience in print media as editor of his college paper, Technician, and as a Dow Jones editing intern at The Wall Street Journal. He is also a freelance writer who specializes in science and technology. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Dukes talks about his return to his alma mater, his editing experience and the outlook for student media.

Q. Describe your new job. What is your typical day like?

A. I’m responsible for training, advising and assisting college journalists at N.C. State in the production of print and online media. That most often means the staff at the Technician, but it also includes reporters and editors at the Agromeck yearbook and the Nubian Message, the university’s cultural weekly.

I started over the summer, when the Technician switches from daily to weekly production, but I’m already getting a sense that there won’t be a typical day at Student Media. I essentially work for the students, and their needs change day to day. In the last two weeks, I’ve done everything from helping brainstorm coverage ideas and working one-on-one with reporters on stories to teaching AP style and good design principles.

Once class starts in the fall, my schedule will become a little more routine — but not by much. I’ll be here at night while students are working hands-on with the next day’s edition. I’m also committed to getting them out of the deadline environment for an hour or so each week to work on honing their skills, whether it’s with me or other local media professionals and Technician alumni.

It’s important to point out that my role is to support students and empower them to make their own decisions, because the content of these publications is determined solely by the student editors. My most important job is to make sure this staff learns from their successes as well as their failures.

Q. In 2007, you were a Dow Jones editing intern at The Wall Street Journal. How has your experience as a copy editor affected your workday as well as your overall career?

A. One of the great things about working for The Wall Street Journal as a copy editor is that it wasn’t a typical internship. The day you walk in, they treat you like you’re a part of the desk. You’re expected to work — and work hard — and those high expectations in that kind of environment really push you to perform.

Spending 10 weeks checking every fact and figure in the stories I edited made me a better writer, and not just from a grammatical standpoint. I’m more skeptical. More detail-oriented. I have a better understanding of how precious credibility is and how easy mistakes can undermine it.

The job also taught me the most important role of a good editor — to be an advocate for the audience. I’m always struck by how easy it is to forget that when you’re bogged down in daily production. I try to take that concept with me, and I really hope to drive that point home as I’m advising students.

Plus, I was in the newsroom the summer when News Corp. chased down and finally secured a deal to purchase the Journal. The issue announcing the decision was actually published on my last day. So I attribute much of my awareness about the changing media landscape to getting owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Q. The Technician newspaper had a difficult spring semester, with the suspension of the editor and talk of the paper shutting down. What is its outlook now?

A. I think the outlook is good. There was never any serious talk of the Technician shutting down, but I think what the students learned from last semester’s turmoil is how much support the paper really has from the N.C. State community, local media professionals and its alumni network.

We certainly have plenty of challenges coming into the fall. This is a young staff for the most part. They will benefit from more experience and training. We also have to work really hard at recruitment and retention to build our staff back up. But these are recurring problems here and at other student media operations, so the big difference this year is a just matter of scale.

The important thing is that we have student leaders in place. Now it’s time for me and other members of the professional staff to do everything we can to help them succeed.

Q. Student media are different from their media counterparts in audience and purpose, yet they face some of the same struggles for readership and advertising revenue. What do you see as the future of student media at N.C. State and on other campuses?

A. Student media has a unique advantage over other news organizations. Nowhere else will you find a more homogeneous audience — 30,000 well-educated 18-to-25-year-olds with substantial financial investments in N.C. State (tuition). The staff is part of that audience. They go to class with readers, drink in the same bars and face similar life challenges. By those virtues alone, no news organization is better equipped to create relevant, valuable content that will inform and entertain (and sell advertising on it).

Granted, student media faces other challenges like inexperience and rapid turnover, but if it was easy, it wouldn’t be any fun, right?

Our challenge is to ensure that student media, here and at other universities, is fulfilling its role as a learning lab for journalism. Innovation should start here, in a nimble organization with a constant resupply of fresh, tech-savvy talent, instead of trickling down from professional outlets.

If we can’t adapt to the way our audience is consuming our content and understand what content our audience wants and needs to consume, no one can.

To learn more about Tyler Dukes, read his blog and follow him on Twitter.

The news from Ocracoke

I just returned from spending several days with my son on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We enjoyed a stay at Ocracoke, a self-described “village” at the southern end of the island of the same name.

Ocracoke has a year-round population of less than 1,000 people. You have to take a ferry to get there, which is part of the charm of the place.

I had last been to Ocracoke in 1994. Then, the primary news source was The Virginian-Pilot, published about 170 miles away in Norfolk, Va. No other daily newspaper was available, not even the ubiquitous USA Today. The house we stayed in did not have a television. Internet access was very limited, and cell phones were used to talk to people, not to text or check e-mail.

Returning to Ocracoke 16 years later, I was curious about how I would get news about the area and the mainland. What would the media landscape look like now? Here are some observations:

  • The Virginian-Pilot is still the only daily newspaper on the island. One copy was available each day in the breakfast room of our hotel, and we were encouraged to share it with our fellow guests.
  • A desktop computer in the breakfast room was very popular. A hotel guest used it to catch up on the news about tornadoes in her hometown in Minnesota. A teenager used it to check Facebook as he talked to a friend on his cell phone.
  • AT&T has no service on the island, so my iPhone was useless except when I was able to use the hotel’s free wifi.
  • Teenage girls sat on the beach, sending text messages to their friends. I guess they had Verizon.
  • At a small grocery store, a man bought a pack of cigarettes and a copy of The Coastland Times, a tri-weekly newspaper for the region. It has no website to speak of.
  • The Ocracoke Observer is a monthly newspaper that seems to be aimed at tourists more than locals. It also has a minimal presence online.
  • Cable TV is available throughout the village, in the hotel, rental houses and bars. The World Cup was on everywhere; cable news was nowhere to be seen.

Overall, news was more widely available on Ocracoke than it was in 1994. Still, the island’s relative isolation makes it more difficult to keep up with events than in so-called civilization. A visit there was a nice vacation from information overload.

Yet, as we returned to the Triangle, I switched the car radio from satellite to terrestrial to listen to WUNC-FM. As the theme music from “All Things Considered” came from the speakers, my son said: “It sounds like we are home.”

Indeed we were.

Guest post: Observer misses the point on Duke’s fourth title

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. Jacob Swiger will graduate from UNC-CH’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication in May and has accepted a position as a technical writer. Jacob has interned for the Independent Weekly as a sports writer and editor.

The UNC-Chapel Hill media members are taking over the state’s newspapers.

At least that’s what Duke fans want to believe after seeing the difference between the front page of The Charlotte Observer the morning after Duke University won the NCAA tournament game compared with last year when Roy Williams won his second title:

I even found this gem on a Duke basketball message board:  “Charlotte, in general, has turned into the UNC self-licking ice cream cone.”

Although I don’t think many could argue the large presence of UNC-CH journalism graduates spread throughout the state, I do think there is a better explanation for what the Observer did.

John Robinson, the editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, blogged about the difference in his paper’s front pages and the Observer’s from a year ago.

Robinson explains that advertisers view a UNC win as a much bigger than a Duke win, which is the main reason why the paper might choose to scale down the prevalence on the front page from a year ago.

My problem is this: What kind of message is the drastic difference sending to the Observer’s readers, especially those who want to celebrate Duke’s championship?

Of course, it depends on the location of the newspaper. I would expect, however, a North Carolina paper to have a decent front page story on the game. Greensboro is not exactly Durham’s second home, but the News & Record did a better job of handling this year’s paper than the Observer did.  As Robinson mentions in his blog post, the News & Record ran a five-column picture this year and a six-column photo last year.  Robinson justifies this due to a more important local story this year compared with last year.

That’s perfectly reasonable.

As for the Observer, I would argue that Duke’s championship was a much more interesting story than UNC’s championship considering the Tar Heels were expected to win the entire season. By only placing a small banner at the top of the paper, the Observer contradicts its treatment of last year’s front page.

Why not replace the Toyota story? Or the pollen story? Or the Tiger story? For that matter, why is the West Virginia mine story buried at the bottom of the page?

As anyone who builds newspaper pages will say and as Robinson told my editing class recently, designing front pages is not a science. It’s very easy for someone outside of the newsroom to be critical, and I respect the difficulty of preparing the front page, especially for those who are professionals. Furthermore, I am confident the Observer took the time to consider the ramifications of its front page based on solid news judgment, but I sincerely believe it missed an opportunity to be loyal to its true cause and lost more than it could gain.

Guest post: The power of a marriage of print, online media

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of these posts. Sara Harris is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, finishing a bachelor’s degree in English and journalism this spring. She likes to find time for pleasure reading, yoga and ballet.

The focus of today’s media is to bring the news to the reader through various forms of online media. However, I don’t believe that we as news providers should be so eager to overlook and leave behind the print media.

The case for a hard push to digital media has already been made, and we, as reporters and editors, have heard it time and time again. The public is unwilling to pay for news that can be readily accessed for free on the Internet; the print media is old-fashioned or wasteful. Honestly, the list goes on and on. These have been enumerated in strategy + business on numerous occasions, citing that these weaknesses have caused profitability of the print media to drastically fall. The same arguments have been made not only against newspapers, but have extended to magazines, books and other print media.

The arguments have merit, but I did not idly stumble into a career in editing and journalism. I believe in the power of a printed word. There is strength of type on a page in your hand that I think resonates more strongly than if only seen through a screen. The interaction the reader has with the newspaper, the feel of the page, the scent of the paper and other sensations are irreplaceable by online media.

The problem, therefore, is not the form of print media but the marketing and the way current news organizations use it solely as a parallel for online forms. I believe that the saving grace for the print media is to have a symbiotic relationship with online media.

References to the opposite media form, exclusive offerings and across the board excellence are different ways to ensure the development of this bond in the readers’ mind. By having these two powerhouses of news support one another, neither will have to perish while the other survives.

Eyetracking a 9-year-old boy

My 9-year-old son, Ross, is a faithful reader of the News & Observer’s sports section. He feels lost without it at the breakfast table each morning.

Today, I observed the way Ross reads the section. With apologies to my Eyetrack friends at The Poynter Institute, here’s some anecdotal “research” on the reading patterns of my son.

Ross quickly scanned the front page and noticed the centerpiece on Maryland’s win over Duke in a big ACC basketball game. Then he turned to the back of the section and began poring over the agate page.

There, Ross noticed that the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team had made several trades the day before. He rattled off the list of players swapped.

What makes this interesting is that a bylined story on the top left of the section’s front page was about the Carolina trades. The story had a headline, a small photo and body text. But Ross had missed it altogether in favor of the tiny type in the back of the section.

For my son, the agate page is where the news is. It’s pure data and trivia, and for him, the most important page in the section. He’s probably not alone among sports fans.