Faculty Spotlight: Rachel Davis Mersey

Reviving journalism for 21st-century readers


In 2002, IPR mass communication scholar Rachel Davis Mersey was a journalist fresh out of college, working at The Arizona Republic. She was part of team developing a new tabloid that wanted to appeal to young women readers. Yet it quickly became clear that neither she, nor the team, fully understood their target audience.

“There was an assumption that women from 18–34 have shared interests,” Mersey said. “But in that group, there are women who have kids, women who graduated from college, and women who dropped out of high school.”

“I thought, there has got to be a better way to do this,” Mersey said. Shortly thereafter, she began her doctorate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she specialized in readership research.

After a year of teaching at the University of Minnesota, Mersey joined the faculty at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications in 2008, becoming an IPR fellow in 2010. Since then, her research has broken new ground in helping “old” media understand how to operate in a news environment roiled by social media and the Internet. She traces the impact of a reader’s identity on personal media preferences, the role of digital media in community building, and how to create more audience-driven content.

“I am motivated by getting people to care about what they should care about,” Mersey said. People should understand what goes on in “your nation, your politics, and your city.”

Reviving Journalism in the 21st Century

By the end of the 21-century’s first decade, it was clear that American journalism was in dire straits due to the meteoric rise of Internet advertising. In 2009 alone, more than 100 U.S. newspapers had printed their final issues, and 10,000 newspaper jobs were cut. 

Despite such a seemingly bleak future, Mersey argued in her 2010 book, Can Journalism Be Saved? Recovering America’s Appetite for News (Praeger) that journalism does have a future—albeit one in which journalists and media executives need to radically reconsider their audiences.

For the last century, three pillars of social responsibility have guided the news industry: To serve as a public forum, to provide information, and to function as a watchdog. But Mersey pushes back on the “journalism as the Fourth Estate” model, especially in how it treats its audience monolithically.

Instead, she urges journalists to adopt an “identity-based model” of journalism: News is not just local, she argues, but it is also personal.

“People are still connected to place, but they’re connected to place through their social selves,” Mersey said. So it’s no longer enough just to tell a “good story.”

“If you want to make a difference, you have to tell that story effectively for your audience,” she explained. 

Saved by a Nonprofit Consortium?

So how can a news organization tell a better story when the downward spiral of media fortunes has left many without resources for newer methods using videos or infographics? Earlier this year, a consortium of California newspapers launched CALmatters, a nonprofit journalism venture that investigates statewide social and political issues, such as water shortages and immigration. Consortium members can then use the CALmatters in-depth articles with graphs and videos, at no charge. 

Mersey and her colleagues are in the early stages of a project, where they will track behavioral data related to the stories produced by CALmatters. Their goal is to learn how effective each storytelling technique is within different communities, different news websites, and different beats.

“Very few times do you have a natural experiment in media, where you can say, ‘That method worked here, but not here,’” Mersey explained. “I think this is a tremendous opportunity to do that.” 

Beyond the U.S.: New Media in the Middle East

Beyond the seismic shifts in U.S. media, the same forces are shaking up world media as well. Today, nearly one in five people worldwide has access to a smartphone, providing people with 24/7 news.

“Because of the wealth in the Middle East, the penetration of mobile devices in those countries is greater than anywhere else in the world—exceeding 90 percent,” Mersey said.

While most existing mobile media studies focus on the business side, Mersey is exploring how smartphone ubiquity might influence public education and engagement. Working with John Pavlik of Rutgers University and Everette Dennis, dean of Northwestern’s campus in Qatar (NU-Q), the trio are deploying computer science methodology and data analysis with an eye toward creating a model of mobile content designed to foster learning and engagement in the Arab world and that will accommodate new technologies like smartwatches.

A lack of funding and resources means “most media organizations don’t test reception of content,” Mersey said. “That’s one of the reasons that a project like this is important… and why the academic-practioner relationship is so essential.”

Rachel Davis Mersey is associate professor of journalism and an IPR fellow.

Photo credit: Jim Ziv