The Local News Initiative is a two-year research and development project 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

Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean, Medill

The Problem

Changing business models and shrinking coverage

This is the biggest crisis we have in journalism
right now.

Margaret Sullivan, Media Columnist, Washington Post
  • 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 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.
  • The crisis in journalism has turned into a crisis of democracy... The reporter shortage means residents don’t have the information to make decisions for their families or to hold institutions accountable.

    Steve Waldman, President, Report for America

The Plan

Understanding audiences and exploring new approaches

Roadmap timeline

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.

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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.

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Learning Lab Partners

Rooted in the real world

We will chronicle ideas, successes and setbacks from the Learning Labs 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.

While we will share our results widely, we're working closely with the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and Indianapolis Star to ground our work in real issues faced by local news organizations.

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Thank you for your support

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 Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment provided the largest single contribution to the project. Further foundation support comes from the Central Indiana Community Foundation.

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.