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Rachel Davis Mersey

Professor of Journalism | Chair of IPR's Program on Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy

PhD, Mass Communication, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 2007

Rachel Davis Mersey’s work examines the influence of digital media on community-building, identity salience and media use, and audiences and their information needs. She is currently working on a number of different industry-relevant studies including the role of 360-degree video, augmented reality, and virtual reality in audience engagement.

Mersey’s research has been published in journals across a variety of disciplines and presented at academic and industry conferences including those for the Paley Center for Media in New York and the American Society of News Editors. Research she presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference was awarded “top paper” by the International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA). In addition, she has done work for the Newspaper Association of America on young adults and newspapers, and the Chicago Community Trust on local information needs. Mersey also served as an advisory member to the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, jointly organized by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute.

Her book, Can Journalism Be Saved? Rediscovering America’s Appetite for News, was published by Praeger in 2010. Her second book, with co-authors John Pavlik, Everette Dennis, and Justin Gengler, was published by Routledge in May of 2018. Mobile Disruptions, a book in the series Disruptions: Studies in Digital Journalism, examines the state of and opportunity for mobile media innovations in the Gulf states. That research is derived from a a large-scale, three-year research project funded by the Qatar National Research Fund to study mobile media innovation in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, on which Mersey serves as a principal investigator.

A former features writer at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Mersey helped to launch the paper’s weekly tabloid targeting women 18 to 34 years old, which won Gannett’s 2003 Innovator Drive for Excellence Award. During this time, she also worked across platforms with and the local NBC affiliate. Before joining the Medill faculty in 2008, she was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. 

In addition to her role as a professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications, she is also executive director of the Media Management Center and a faculty member for NUvention, the flagship interdisciplinary course in the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Current Research

Media and Identity. One of Mersey's major research themes involves the identity-media connection, in particular, the role that specific media properties play in individuals’ lives. She has written extensively on identity salience and media use, a topic that has received scant attention from researchers in mass communications. Her book, Can Journalism Be Saved?, posits a new theoretical framework, the identity-based model of journalism, which aims to understand individuals’ connections to media as mediated by identity. Her chapter on “The Identity Experience" in Medill on Media Engagement addresses the professional application of the identity-based model of journalism. As an extension of this research, Mersey has begun to examine Arab identity and media use with particular attention to Al Jazeera-English, which is headquartered in Doha, Qatar, home to Northwestern University in Qatar. In related work, she has partnered on ongoing research with AJ+, Al Jazeera’s news app launched in 2014, to understand Millennials and their relationships with global news.

In 2014, Mersey also delivered the keynote speech on audience and identity at an annual conference of the Norwegian Institute of Journalism in Fredrikstad, Norway.

Extending this line of research to examine niche audiences, Mersey is now working on a book on the media habits of America’s one percent. There is a fascination with wealth in America. There are noble reasons for such interest. The country’s wealthiest individuals are more likely to vote, to engage in political discourse, to attend campaign events, to donate to political and nonprofit causes, to contact public officials, and to engage in other participatory acts. And there are less noble reasons. An entire cable channel has prospered on the vulgarity, decadence, and pleasures of rich women on reality television—yes, Bravo, home to the Real Housewives franchise and its spinoff Don’t be Tardy, featuring Kim Zolciak; her ex-NFL husband, Kroy Biermann; and their near ever-growing family. The media have robustly covered wealth in America. Think Kim Kardashian—the wedding to Kris Humphries, the wedding to Kayne West, the $4.5 million engagement ring, the theft of the $4.5 million ring—and the widening gap of economic futures, left to more serious publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times. However, the media have failed to address their roles in the interplay among the powerful trifecta of wealth, media, and politics in this country. This book argues that media play essential roles in shaping people’s worldview and, therefore, addresses one lynchpin issue: the particularly high stakes of the media consumption habits of the one percent. What do the rich read, watch, and listen to? And why should we care? This is not a book about what makes them rich but about what shapes their perspectives, and how their perspectives shape our country and its priorities.

News Metrics and Engagement. In collaboration with the American Press Institute (API), Mersey is leading a research initiative to improve news-use metrics. In 2014, she brought together researchers and journalism practitioners from across the United States to discuss the question of which metrics would best measure engagement with online news media products, capturing both the value of the media to the consumer and its advertising potential. Several research projects emerged from that initial meeting, including a study of the path to subscriptions and the value of using total time reading as a measure of engagement. 

Because of the success of these industry-academic collaborations, Mersey was invited to speak to the topic at the 2014 World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) World Publishing Expo in Amsterdam.

Mobile Media. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and others have played an undeniable role in shaping the current socio-political landscape of the Middle East, yet most mobile media research to date has focused on the business aspects of their use—not, for example, how their content might influence public education and engagement. Mersey is helping to launch a new study that will seek to understand the development and diffusion of mobile media content in the Arab world. Working with John Pavlik of Rutgers University and Everette Dennis, dean of Northwestern’s campus in Qatar (NU-Q), she will deploy computer science methodology and data analysis with an eye toward creating a model of innovative mobile content designed to foster learning and engagement in the Arab world. This research is funded by the Qatar National Research Fund’s (QNRF) National Priorities Research Program (NPRP), and the team is currently working on a book, Mobile Disruptions in the Middle East: Lessons from Qatar and the Arabian Gulf Region in Mobile Media Content Innovation, for Routledge due to be published in 2018. 

Selected Publications

Journal Articles

Mersey, R. D., E. Malthouse, and B. Calder. 2012. Focusing on the reader: Engagement trumps satisfaction. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 89(4): 695–709.

Pirotte, M., D. Courtney, M. Schmidt, and R. D. Mersey. 2012. Increase in non-contrast computerized tomography scans of the head following popular media stories about head injury. Western Journal of Emergency Medicine.

Sullivan, D., and R. D. Mersey. 2010. Using equity-based performance measures to build a community-based brand. Journal of Media Business Studies 74:59–76.

Mersey, R. D. 2010. Re-evaluating Stamm’s Theory of Newspapers and Communities in a new media environment: Toward a new theory based on identity and interdependence. Northwestern University Law Review 1042: 517-36. 

Mersey, R. D., E. Malthouse, and B. Calder. 2010. Engagement with online media. Journal of Media Business Studies 7(2): 39–56.

Sullivan, D., and R. D. Mersey. 2010. Using equity-based performance measures to build a community-based brand. Journal of Media Business Studies 7(4): 59–76.


Mersey, R. D. Can Journalism Be Saved? Rediscovering America’s Appetite for News. Praeger (2010).

Book Chapters

Mersey, R. D. 2015. The changing magazine audience: Enriching the reader relationship. In The Routledge Handbook of Magazine Research: The Future of the Magazine Form, ed. D. Abrahamson and M. R. Prior-Miller, 519–33. New York: Routledge. 

Mersey, R. D. 2013. An argument for news media managers to direct and use audience research. In Media Management and Economics Research in a Transmedia Environment, ed. A. B. Albarran, 121–132. New York: Routledge.

Mersey, R. D. 2010. The identity experience. In Medill on Media Engagement, ed. A. Peck and E. Malthouse, 81–93. New York: Hampton Press.