In kitchens across America, refrigerator magnets hold up clippings from community newspapers. People still watch the evening news for area election results, and throughout the coronavirus pandemic, viewers have tuned in for press conferences with city and state officials. Now more than ever, local news is crucial to the public.
Despite the importance of these information sources, newsrooms are struggling to adapt to the digital era and shuttering operations across the country. To help reinvent the struggling industry, in 2018 the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications launched the Local News Initiative — a research and development project designed to improve audience engagement and strengthen business models. Alumni and industry leaders have stepped up to fund LNI’s reporting, data and research, which is conducted by students and faculty. Their work was awarded a Google Innovation Challenge grant in 2019.
A lead gift from John M. Mutz ’57, ’58 MS, former lieutenant governor of Indiana and past president of PSI Energy, the state’s largest utility company, helped launch the initiative.
“Trustworthy, sustainable, respected local news sources make our society function,” says Mutz, a member of the Medill Hall of Achievement’s inaugural class. “Without local news, local government and local institutions will corrupt and fail.”
LNI has received support from other donors, including Myrta J. Pulliam — a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and philanthropist whose gift went toward the development of the Indianapolis Star Learning Laboratory in Indiana, where LNI researchers are providing new insights and ideas to help build an innovative model for sustainable local news. Mark Ferguson ’80, a partner at Chicago law firm Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott, also made a gift toward LNI.
Foundation support has been key to the effort as well. Lilly Endowment Inc., based in Indianapolis, and the Central Indiana Community Foundation were early supporters. So was the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which awarded Medill $100,000 two years ago toward local media market research and another $1 million in March to establish the Metro Media Lab in Chicago, which provides leadership training for community and ethnic media organizations and helps news outlets build sustainable business models. Medill students will be vital to the success of the lab as they work with seasoned journalists to report on the city’s most pressing issues and research how Chicagoans get their news.
“Medill has an unparalleled opportunity to share its knowledge with local media organizations to help them thrive,” says Charles Whitaker ’80, ’81 MS, dean of Medill.
For more on the Local News Initiative, read “Fighting for Local News — and Democracy.”