Assessing the Changing Business Model of Local News

by Daniel Farber-Bell

Professor Philip Napoli tackled the question of media impact assessment on a recent podcast of the MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing Center. Napoli, who teaches journalism and media studies at Rutgers, published “Measuring Media Impact” for the Norman Lear Center in October of last year.

Napoli distinguishes between the new field of media impact assessment and the more traditional research field of media effects. He points that media impact assessment focuses on large scale changes, long term effects and high level of viewer engagement. While media effect refers to local cases, short term effect, which is based on the model of sender and receiver.

In his most recent project: “News Measures Research,” which began this summer, Napoli assesses “local media ecosystems,” “news quality” and “the needs and interests of local news audiences.” His goal is being able to inform policy makers, media funders and researchers, by measuring successfully how local news companies serve their communities, what is good reporting and what are the needs of the audience.

Napoli also touches on the possible limitations of his project. First, he explores the possibility that the impact measured could turn out to be superficial or limited, when compared to the actual impact in play. Then he points to the possible impact of the basic presence of journalism, as distinguished from individual stories, and the need to measure it as well. “The very existence of news outlets in a community can have important effects in terms of deterrent effects on corruption,” says Napoli.

For Napoli, the change in the media business model and the arrival of new media funders created a need for a better way to assess journalistic work. Journalism as a field is financially struggling to the point that policy makers feel the need they have to step in and protect it–a need that never been existed before. Therefore the media funders are starting to understand they must have new ways prove their companies’ value if they want to sustain them within the new flow of information.

Attempting to quantify media impact is a controversial matter. “it is potentially dangerous,” says Napoli, “to try to standardize how the impact of any journalistic initiative is assessed.“ Ignoring specific attributes of an outlet or a journalist is problematic. While he agrees that without any standard commonalty you lose the ability to make meaningful comparisons across time. That being said, Napoli explains that in his work he attempts to go “beyond impact assessments.”

Napoli’s research is important for news companies, producers and filmmakers. The challenge of having an impact and understanding its character does not seem to be the same in every case. But if he will have some success in formulating a way to better measure that impact, it should have useful outcomes for all of us in public media.


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