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Adapting to an Ever-Changing Digital Revolution

A visit with Esther Thorson, Professor, School of Journalism

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: media advertising journalism internet

Finding a way to transform MU’s School of Journalism into a think tank for the news and advertising industry has been the main research goal for Esther Thorson, who serves as Professor, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research, and Director of Research for the Reynolds Journalism Institute. While medical schools, law schools, and engineering schools have long provided think tanks for their fields, journalism schools have never focused on the creation, research, and application of new industry ideas. Simply put, thus far journalism schools only “produce the fodder for the personnel in those companies,” but this is something Thorson aspires to change.

Her first major effort, in collaboration with colleague Margaret Duffy, was to address the news and advertising crisis caused by the “digital revolution.” Newspaper and television audiences have been plummeting as consumers and advertisers alike are shifting toward the Internet and other new media technologies. According to Thorson, “the question really has become ‘how do you move from the business model, which now operates in news, and manage to move that over to the Internet and be competitive with aggregators such as Google or Yahoo! that don’t really create news?’” Thorson and Duffy set out to find a simple, straightforward answer to this question for any and all forms of news media. They reviewed scholarly literature and conducted research about how consumers behave in the new digital environment, and then they developed a model that was contracted by the Newspaper Association of America.

The “media choice model,” as they call it, “offers an organizing framework and a guide to growing audience and reviving revenues; identifies choice-based research methods offering hard evidence about media audiences; and provides a practical guide for improving existing publications and web sites and developing new products.” The model involves examining four sets of variables: communication needs, media features, aperture, and voice. Partnered with the Carnegie Foundation, they have been able to use data from the Pew Center for the Press and Citizens to test and determine how human beings choose what media they prefer for news and advertising. Most recently they held a “webinar” for the Newspaper Association of America to present their approach in an interactive lecture via the Internet and telephone. In addition, they have contracted with a number of news organizations to assist them in applying the model to their own newsrooms.

Thorson highlights a few examples of how the approach is being used for newspaper, television, and radio organizations. Working with two newspapers in the South – one in Jacksonville, Florida, and the other in Savannah, Georgia – they are designing a series of phone and Internet surveys to test the wants and needs of audience members in terms of the four variables mentioned above; the results will help these newspapers adapt to the changing environment. A big question they are trying to answer is “how important is customization to different people?” In this connection, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds are popular right now because they allow people to customize their own news and easily find the stories that interest them. This is the kind of media feature that will help newspapers decide how to build their news platforms.

Another element Thorson and Duffy are testing involves aperture, defined as the time of day, day of the week, or time of year when people are most likely to want news at their fingertips. Thorson explains that there are aperture differences among generations. For older generations, “Sunday morning is information time, so we read the New York Times and watch the talk shows on TV. If you’re under thirty-five, Sunday morning is not information time; it’s entertainment time.” As a result, Sunday newspaper circulation has dropped tremendously in the past five years: “people don’t want that big old thick Sunday newspaper anymore,” Thorson observes; “they’re like, what are we going to do with it? Line a birdcage?”

The last variable Thorson and Duffy are examining involves voice. Traditionally the voice of news and advertising has been an authoritative one. Walter Cronkite was known for telling his audience what is important, what he thinks we should know, and the audience has no input. People who are accustomed to this type of voice know and trust it, and it therefore remains important to them. Fox News has transmuted that voice into an opinionated one with conservative and patriotic values, a voice that also has become a favorite with many people. Most recently, however, the development of what is called “citizen journalism” has entered the market and achieved a degree of popularity; people seem to like this creative voice, and the overall situation in which “anybody can have a story to tell others, or pictures to show, or feelings to share.” Thorson and her team are working with newspapers to come up with “a whole new way of combining different newspaper-owned platforms… in order to fill the different kinds of needs with more new features, with aperture consciousness, and with choice in what kind of voice they want to hear. So you’ll be able to hear the creative voice, you’ll be able to hear the opinion voice, and you’ll get to hear the authoritative voice; and then you can put the blend together however you like it.”

Beyond newspapers, Thorson and Duffy have also been working with Minnesota Public Radio to apply the media choice model to a radio medium in an attempt to make the public radio station “a forum for community discussion about significant issues.” MPR is doing this by developing what they call an “idea aggregator,” through which members of the community can submit issues that concern them, such as economics in Minnesota small towns. Reporters can look at these ideas and then report about the issues that affect and interest their audience. By involving citizens, they create a process of moving from user-generated ideas and mobilization to action in the development of policies and activities in the state.

The media choice model can also be used in a television platform. Thorson and Duffy are helping WHO-TV in Des Moines, Iowa, apply the model in order to drive traffic from broadcast television shows to the station’s website. Using the blend of voice element in this situation, they ask the audience such questions as, “What kind of features would you like to see in a governor? What are the big problems in Iowa (e.g., transportation, education, crime, community development) that the governor ought to do something with, and what do you think he ought to do with them?” Again, the idea is to solicit as much audience input as possible and then report on those issues. If successful, this approach will result in increased viewership through higher community involvement, as well as improvement in the quality and variation of journalism at WHO-TV. Reflecting on the media choice model, Thorson’s personal philosophy is that “you can develop a theory, test it in a scholarly fashion, and at the same time figure out how it can be used to impact the world, in this case, the world of journalism.”

Having a Ph.D. in psychology has aided Thorson in observing and understanding people in terms of how they respond to messages, and her research program requires her to be a “jack-of-all-trades.” Recently, for example, she co-edited a second-edition textbook that focuses on “how to use the Internet to advertise.” As the only female Fellow of the American Association of Advertisers, Thorson came to MU in 1993. She recalls that the School of Journalism did not do as much in the way of research at that time. “It was a hands-on, learn how to do it kind of a place, and a wonderful place at that,” she recalls, “but it didn’t do research, and it didn’t have any research funding.” Thus Thorson was hired to build a research unit for graduate students and faculty. As a result of revising the entire doctoral program, hiring new faculty members, and writing research proposals, she has made it possible for MU’s School of Journalism to spend approximately $1.5 million per year on research. While this number may seem insignificant when compared with the funding provided to other fields, it is one of the most highly funded research centers within journalism schools nationwide – “and we’re still building,” Thorson adds, her eye on increased research opportunities for the future.