Penelope Muse Abernathy
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Chapel Hill, NC
- Personal Website
Penny Muse Abernathy is exploring the changing media economic landscape in the digital age behind the “creative destruction” of traditional media forms.
The primary focus of Professor Abernathy’s teaching, research and outreach this past year has revolved around a single topic: Developing business models for news organizations striving to adapt to the digital age.
Her students are building an interactive, educational, multimedia site that will be a unique – and much needed -- resource for community news organizations everywhere, regardless of size, location or ownership. The site will comprehensively address two of the most pressing economic issues facing newspapers today and provide editors and publishers with strategies for “monetizing” online content, as well as advertising directors and publishers with a blueprint for reinventing the way they sell.
The chair will develop and share innovative teaching, be a leader crusading for new digital media economic models and encouraging diverse students to pursue journalism careers. A significant web presence will help the chair reach journalists across all media. The chair is expected to collaborate widely, including with Knight grantees working in this area. Ultimately, this chair should help spur new thinking about journalism and digital media economics.
The primary focus of Professor Abernathy’s work this year has been developing digital business models for community news organizations throughout the country – in both cities and rural villages. “Simply put,” she said, “community news organizations – whether traditional newspapers or online start-ups – are the glue that binds. It is vitally important that these news organizations survive and thrive in this new era.”
She believes these organizations foster and create a sense of geographic community, identity and cohesiveness. Even in a digital age, we are still defined by geography – in everything from politics to our social lives.
They can also set the agenda for public policy debate, informing citizens and their elected officials – not only locally, but also at the state and national levels. (Two of the small North Carolina newspapers the Chair has worked with have won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their investigative reporting. Both have circulations under 10,000.)
Finally, these outlets encourage regional economic growth and commerce, providing a marketplace where readers and advertisers connect. Going forward, a news organization that is responsive to the changing needs of its advertisers has the best opportunity to thrive in the new environment.
Professor Abernathy instructed led students in a graduate- and senior-level seminar course (Leadership in a Time of Change) in extensive work in the field that stretched over four semesters and involved six different community news organizations. Students conducted market research in the various communities, developed new digital strategies for the news organizations, redesigned both the websites and advertising efforts around these news strategies, and are currently implementing the changes.
She and her class shared what was learned in daylong workshops with news organizations and press associations around the country – from New York to West Virginia to North Carolina to Chicago. “In addition, I summarized the results in several academic settings, including two workshops at AEJMC. I have received numerous requests from publishers and editors around the country who have ‘heard’ of the workshops and requested the materials I passed out.”
Professor Abernathy created both a textbook and a supplemental workbook, entitled, Business Models for Community News in a Digital Age. This textbook/workbook is currently being developed as an interactive, educational website that will be accessible to news organizations around the country and will allow students at UNC at Chapel Hill to provide assistance to any publisher, editor or advertising director who seeks it.
Question-and-Answer with Knight Chair
What disturbs you most about journalism today? What excites you most?
“The economist Joseph Schumpeter defined the process of creative destruction as ‘capitalism’s way of reshuffling the deck’ and renewing itself,” Professor Abernathy said. “When buffeted by the ‘gales of destruction’ sweeping across the news industry, it’s often hard to appreciate the creative possibilities. But – especially over the last couple of years – it is possible to find the seeds of our renewal.
“Journalistically, I’m most excited about the development of digital tools and programs that allow citizens to be better informed about and engaged in their communities. Simultaneously, these advancements have the potential to take reporting to a whole new level by helping journalists provide both analysis and context to important public policy issues – such as education, health, crime and justice, and economics – that affect the quality of life in a community.”
Conversely, she is most worried about the significant retraction of these public affairs beats over the last five years – especially among state and metropolitan newspapers, which during the 1980s and 1990s set the standard for investigative public policy reporting, winning 12 of the 21 Pulitzer Public Service Awards. Through their prize-winning reports, these newspapers set the agenda for public debate at the local, state and national levels. At the moment, she contends, it’s unclear who or what organization will step in “to connect the dots” as these regional papers once did.
Economically, she is most intrigued by the new forms of marketing and advertising that have emerged in this digital age and the potential for savvy, forward-thinking publishers to reinvent their business models, and, in the process, sustain good journalism in the 21st century. We are no longer playing “a zero-sum game”, as economists call it, where a “new” medium – such as the internet – simply takes away advertising from existing media, which are condemned to live with a smaller and smaller piece of the revenue pie.
“On the other hand, I am very concerned about the publishers of newspapers, who are unable to imagine possibilities beyond printed advertisements, which continue their steady and dramatic year-over-year declines. This tendency to look backwards is called “cultural lock-in” and it almost always leads to the demise of an organization.
“Creation and destruction – we have both, economically and journalistically. As we barrel toward an inflection point, it’s still not too late to choose creation.”
Should universities expand their role as community content providers? How?
Much of the recent emphasis at journalism schools has been on student-led efforts to create and provide “hyper-local” content – that runs the gamut from coverage of local civic meetings to features on colorful characters.
But there is also an opportunity during this time of disruption in the media ecosystem for students and faculty alike to provide context and analysis on public policy issues at the state and regional level, as well as the local one. It can be done through special “digital news rooms” that are housed in the journalism schools, but run independently of the campus newspaper, or it can be done through classroom instruction.