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The Case for Local News

Journalism professors use innovation to revitalize a struggling industry. By Clare Milliken

Image: Shane Collins

If you’re an avid news consumer, it might come as a shock that almost half of U.S. adults read or watch virtually no news at all. 

That’s what Northwestern associate professor Stephanie Edgerly found in her study that identified five distinct groups of news consumers:

Stephanie Edgerly

Stephanie Edgerly

  • Network News Loyalists (24% of U.S. adults) watch a great deal of national and local television news.
  • Digital News Mixers (13%) are younger, and they lean toward international news, NPR and satirical news like The Daily Show. They are also more likely to encounter news through social media.
  • News Omnivores (9%) are characterized by variety; they don’t favor one type of news over another.
  • Conservative News Loyalists (6%) watch Fox News, listen to conservative talk radio, visit sites like and watch a small amount of local news
  • News Avoiders (48%) have very low levels of news use — encountering news less than one day per week, on average.

This research also revealed the power of one particular type of news.

Local news is represented across all five groups of news consumers, Edgerly says. Conservatives consume local news. Network loyalists, and ‘mixers’ to a lesser extent, watch a lot of local TV news. And among avoiders, local is the only thing that they’re engaging with. Local news has a lot of promise because it’s situated in people’s identities: where they’re from, the people they live around, what’s happening in their schools.


“Local news has a lot of promise because it’s situated in people’s identities.” — Stephanie Edgerly

A Flailing Field

While Edgerly’s research shows local news is important and valued by consumers, the industry has faced a tidal wave of financial and other challenges.

So many of the cuts we see in newsrooms are happening in local news, Edgerly says. That’s worrisome given the power and potential that local news can have, specifically in terms of facilitating community participation. And I think we’re all wondering how we can we make this industry that has a lot of power in communities more business viable.

That’s a key question for the Local News Initiative, which is led by industry expert and Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications senior associate dean Tim Franklin and includes Edgerly as a member. The initiative looks to reinvigorate and sustain local news.

Northwestern professors Tim Franklin, Rachel Davis Mersey and Stephanie Edgerly discuss the Local News Initiative, which is working with media organizations like the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Indianapolis Star to help revitalize local news across the U.S.

“We’re at a full-blown crisis in local news in this country,” says Franklin, former president of the Poynter Institute, a leading international school for journalists and a media think tank. “One in five newspapers has gone out of business since 2004. Today, 3.2 million people live in entire counties that are news deserts. Our initiative is working directly with local news organizations to experiment with new business models that could help these groups succeed in the 21st century.”

The initiative also works with other groups at Medill: The school’s Spiegel Research Center is analyzing massive amounts of data on audience subscription and news consumption patterns, and the Knight Lab is using the initiative’s insights to experiment with new ways to engage audiences.

“Local news really needs to think about subsets of the audience in their local market.” — Rachel Davis Mersey

Identity at the Local Level

When it comes to revitalizing local news, media organizations would do well to think about identity, says Medill professor and Local News Initiative member Rachel Davis Mersey ’01 MS. An audience expert and former print and broadcast reporter, Mersey has spent a large part of her career working to understand how people’s unique social identities relate to and engage with media.

Rachel Davis Mersey

Rachel Davis Mersey

According to Mersey’s research, one of the reasons people consume news is to receive positive feedback on their social identities, be they “professor,” “mother,” “Asian American,” etc.

People tend to consume media that makes them feel as good as they can about who they are,” Mersey says. I don’t want to read a story that says all professors are not interested in hearing viewpoints they might disagree with. It’s no wonder millennials stopped reading the news. The news kept saying how lazy millennials are.” 

Collaborating with both national and local news organizations, Mersey is helping media outlets understand our tendency to want to feel as positive as possible.

“Local news really needs to think about subsets of the audience in their local market, which are shaped by social identity,” Mersey says. “For example, if you identify as an involved parent, local news should offer you stories that engage with that identity. And in that process, local news might even tell you something about the social safety net, for example, that tangentially engages with your ‘parent’ identity and that you didn’t yet know you were interested in.”

“I think this crisis in local news can be figured out, and it needs to be figured out because the stakes are just too high.” — Tim Franklin

An Integrated Approach

Edgerly and Mersey are now teaming up to help local outlets better engage with their audiences, collecting and analyzing data from local media markets across the U.S. to help develop tailored, targeted recommendations for audiences in each of these markets.

Both Edgerly and Mersey understand that no one recommendation will work everywhere.

“We are bringing the business side of local news to the table alongside a tremendous amount of data on new markets and audiences,” Edgerly says. “For local news to work, we have to have all those pieces working in tandem. We can't just be thinking about what the audience wants without considering what that means for production or how to turn a profit.”

For his part, Franklin remains optimistic.

“I think this crisis in local news can be figured out, and it needs to be figured out because the stakes are just too high,” he says. “The demand for news has never been higher. We don’t have a demand problem or a supply problem. What we have is a business problem, and my hope is that with a lot of creative minds joining forces to collaborate on sophisticated, smart research, we can help local news not only survive but thrive.”

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Reader Responses

  • Some observations on the article:

    The piece assigns the name “Conservative News Loyalists” to those who watch Fox News, listen to conservative talk radio, etc. Why don’t you more appropriately re-label “Digital News Mixers” as “Liberal News Loyalists” instead, because aren’t they the primary audience who watches NPR, CNN, CNBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, etc.? If you want to use the word “Conservative,” please don’t hesitate to appropriately use the word “Liberal.”

    How can the demand for local news be so high if, as the article notes, as much as 48% of the population are news avoiders? Does this 48% represent pent-up demand? The other 52% of the overall news-watching or news-reading market is already segmented into the categories you designated. Why not concentrate your efforts on this remaining 48% as fertile territory, if in fact this group of the population is yearning to be served as a viable local news market?

    Before you start segmenting the market that presumably local news organizations should target, I’d recommend learning exactly why specific papers — and if applicable, specific local TV/cable news outlets — have been failing. If an entity's strength as a local paper or TV or radio station is serving local to locals, focus on doing that extraordinarily well. Leave the national and international content to others whose business model and budget you cannot match.

    Thank you for the chance to comment.

    Jeffrey Kollum ’72 MBA, Chicago, via Northwestern Magazine

  • As a former journalist (once a Medill student), I’m especially interested in the insightful commitment to strengthen the important work of expository reporting and the critical role of local news.
    Thank you. I look forward to future issues.

    Sally Newhouse Becker ’67 Chicago and Venice, Fla., via Northwestern Magazine

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