Northwestern Local News Initiative Launches Research and Development Project

Facilitator Tran Ha gives a presentation to news executives, thought leaders, philanthropists and representatives of the Learning Lab news organizations during the Medill Local News Summit.

There’s no question consumers are rapidly changing how and where they access news and information. How newspapers should reinvent themselves to remain a relevant news source is a different story. The Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative is a two-year research and development project hoping to tell that story by providing a greater understanding of how individuals engage with local news and to find new approaches to bolster business models.

In addition, Northwestern (home to the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communication in Evanston, Ill.) has also partnered with three news publications—the Chicago Tribune, Indianapolis Star and San Francisco Chronicle—as Learning Labs.

Tim Franklin

“We were looking for metro news organizations with different ownerships—in this case Hearst, Tronc and the USA Today Network (Gannett),” said Tim Franklin, a Medill senior associate dean, professor and leader of the Local News Initiative. “We also wanted to leverage the scale of these larger companies, so that our learnings could be shared widely within those organizations. Generally, metro news outlets have been among the most affected by digital disruption. And, we also needed news outlets big enough to enable our data researchers to find clear trends and patterns.”

San Francisco Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper said, “When (Tim) asked me if we would be interested in the project, I didn’t hesitate. The more brains we have working on supporting local and regional newsrooms, the better. A lot of people have a lot of ideas about how to attract new readers to the coverage provided by media institutions, but many theories are supported by little statistical or empirical evidence.”

The research takes two forms: first, Medill’s Spiegel Research Center will perform deep data mining and analysis of anonymous readership, engagement and customer service data at the three Learning Labs. Then, the faculty and student researchers will look for patterns in reader behavior at all three newspapers.

“They’ll be able to analyze the behaviors that lead to actions such as buying a digital subscription or consumer advertising,” Franklin said.

Simultaneously, Medill’s Knight Lab will go into the field in each of the three markets to conduct research on the local news needs and expectations of residents.

“We hope to provide a much greater understanding of how individuals engage with local news, and then we believe we can help local news organizations deliver more of what readers value and are willing to pay for,” Franklin said.

Although the project is slated for two years, the initiative will share the proprietary findings later this year with the Learning Labs individually, and then share the broad trends and other findings with the entire industry. Afterwards, the initiative will begin the development phase of the project, where the Knight Lab faculty and students will explore the creation of new digital tools and products that could help boost engagement, grow business and improve sustainability.

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Published: August 9, 2018

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