Our dissertation award got a record number of submissions this year! And we’re proud to announce our winner, Andrew Conte of Point Park University.
Our communications officer Jake Nelson did a quick Q&A with Andrew about his work, which he hopes will soon be available at a bookstore/library near you.
Can you give us a brief summary of the dissertation? What is the story/argument you’re making with it?
My research focuses on what happens to a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania when its newspaper closes. I conducted a qualitative case study in order to understand how people responded to the death of the newspaper in the five years since it closed. My work hopes to reveal some insights about an emerging problem across the United States as many small communities, and now even some larger ones, lose their traditional source of communication in the form of a local newspaper.
Can you tell us a little bit about what drew you to your dissertation topic? How did you decide to focus on news deserts, and on this news desert in particular?
I run the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, which is a laboratory for present and future forms of journalistic storytelling. Before that, I was an investigative reporter in Pittsburgh for many years. Because of that work, I’ve been interested in the ways that newspapers inform citizens, and how citizens in turn shape local news and interact with it. After I left my newspaper to start work full-time at the university, I started receiving phone calls from people wondering what happened to their local reporters. When I did some research I discovered that in many cases the reporters no longer existed because the newspapers they worked for had either closed or withdrawn their coverage areas leaving “news deserts” behind. I wanted to better understand this phenomenon and what happens at the local level.
How did you decide on the method you used for this dissertation? What is it about the qualitative case study that you felt made it the best choice for this project?
I knew that some excellent quantitative research already exists, particularly the work done by Penny Abernathy formally of University of North Carolina and Michelle Ferrier now at Florida A&M. I wanted to better understand what happens within a single community by talking with residents and community leaders to explore whether they felt a sense of loss, and if so, what they have done to fill that void. I felt like I could best understand this type of situation by spending time in one small community that lost its newspaper and really digging into the qualitative research that way.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as you pursued this work?
Anytime you start work in a community as an outsider, it takes time to build up trust and for people to come to know and accept you. That was probably the biggest challenge in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, the community that I covered. Fortunately I already had established some relationships with people in the community through my work at the Center for Media Innovation, and previously as a newspaper reporter. Beyond that, it just took time and a little luck to meet people and convince them to talk with me for my research.
What was the most fascinating or exciting part of this journey?
I’m fascinated by what an outsized role Facebook in particular has come to play within local communities as people look for information and share out what they discover. I think this creates a tremendous opportunity, but it also means that work needs to be done to produce better quality information on social media. That will require an acknowledgment that the information that people share on social media has value; then we must work with people to help them produce more reliable and more relevant information there.
A lot of people (myself included) have moments in the dissertation where something happens, they run into an obstacle, and they need to change their original plans. Did you run into any of those kinds of issues? If so, what was it, and how did you overcome it?
I was fortunate in that I was able to finish my field research about a day or two before the governor of Pennsylvania shut down the state because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But in terms of overcoming an obstacle, I would say one of the biggest ones was limiting my expectations from the start. I had hoped to do a photo voice component as part of my research as well, but my committee convinced me to save that for post-doctoral research.
How do you hope your dissertation might help improve understanding of the challenges journalism faces among journalism researchers and/or practitioners?
We’ve been able to track the growth of news desert as they spread across the United States, and we’re starting to get an understanding of what it means when newspapers are hollowed out from within even though they still exist. But we struggle to find out what goes on within areas as traditional news outlets disappear. News still happens, and people still search for meaning and understanding about what goes on in their community. But left on their own, citizens often don’t do a great job of focusing on objective, accurate, and relevant information. My hope is that this research, and similar research like it, will help all of us start to understand how we can produce higher quality information in the absence of traditional media.
What’s next for you? What are you currently working on, and what do you hope to work on in the future?
I’m in the process of updating and expanding my dissertation with the hopes of turning it into a nonfiction book that can be published in 2022. In addition I continue my work at the Center for Media Innovation to experiment with new ways of sharing information and making it financially sustainable. People can find out more about our work at CenterforMediaInnovation.org.