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Northwestern University launches Local News Initiative

University expertise to help develop new approaches to local news in U.S.

Northwestern Local News Initiative Logo

Northwestern University is launching this month an innovative, two-year research and development project aimed at providing greater understanding of how digital audiences engage with local news and finding new approaches to bolster local news business models.

The Northwestern Local News Initiative, led by the University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, is intended to spur experimentation of new approaches to local news—through deeper audience insights that could give rise to more reader engagement, improved trust and, ultimately, more sustainable business models.

“Local news is critical to our self-governed democracy,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean at Medill and leader of the Local News Initiative. “And, local news coverage across America is shrinking. Without robust local news, citizens will not have the information they need for their everyday lives about their community’s government institutions, schools, businesses and neighbors. Northwestern and Medill are uniquely positioned for this project because of our nationally recognized, leading-edge data mining, research and development expertise.”

The Local News Initiative is being supported by a $300,000 grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., and significant contributions from private donors concerned about the future of local news.

The business model that has supported local news reporting in cities across the United States has been greatly disrupted. Steep revenue losses have led to cuts that hinder local news outlets’ ability to provide information about local government, civic institutions, businesses, schools and residents.

Three local news organizations—the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and The Indianapolis Star—have partnered with Northwestern to become “Learning Labs” for the Local News Initiative.

Medill will chronicle ideas, successes and setbacks from the Learning Labs on a new web channel, so that leaders of all news media organizations, journalists, technologists, scholars and students from around the nation can learn from the project’s findings and experimentation.

Medill’s Spiegel Research Center (SRC), a leader in consumer and audience-based research that drives financial outcomes, will analyze anonymous data about readers and their engagement with news content and media services at the three Learning Labs. For example, faculty and student researchers from SRC will help identify which behaviors—reading particular types of articles, purchasing a digital subscription, clicking on an advertisement, or calling a customer service center—lead to certain financial outcomes for the media outlets. They also will study behavior across different devices and media platforms.

The Northwestern Knight Lab, a leader in developing digital storytelling tools and platforms, will conduct additional human-centered design research through interviewing residents in the local markets about their news needs and expectations. The Knight Lab faculty and students also will research news consumption data of all local news outlets in the Chicago, San Francisco and Indianapolis markets. 

Using the research conducted this year by SRC and Knight Lab, the product development and experimentation phase will begin in early 2019. The Knight Lab team will work with the Learning Lab partners to create new products, tools and approaches that are designed to improve reader engagement, bolster financial sustainability and better inform citizens—all based on the research findings.

“We at The Chronicle are thrilled to be working with Medill on this project,” said Audrey Cooper, editor in chief of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Getting better insight into what readers need to know and how they want to learn about vital topics of the day is a key part of what will help us continue to serve the people of Northern California for generations to come, and I’m confident this project will go a long way in helping us reach those goals.”

The Indianapolis Star Executive Editor Ronnie Ramos added, “We are excited to partner with Medill and learn more about our readers and how they consume our content. This is an exciting project, and my hope is that it will help improve our journalism and strengthen our business in the future.”

The Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment provided the largest single contribution to the project.

Several individuals also have given substantial gifts to support this initiative, including Medill alumnus John Mutz (BSJ57, MSJ58), former lieutenant governor of Indiana and president of PSI, Indiana’s largest utility company. Another major donor was Myrta Pulliam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and philanthropist whose family once owned The Indianapolis Star and The Arizona Republic. 

“One of the most revered schools of journalism, Medill, is the ideal place to study a sustainable business model for gathering local news,” Mutz said. “Our democratic society depends on having a credible and reliable source of this news.”

To learn more about the Northwestern Local News Initiative or how to get involved, contact Tim Franklin.