We sit down with assistant professor Brendan Watson (Ph.D., University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) to learn more about his research and his thoughts on today's hot topics.
Tell us about the research you're working on.
I recently received a grant-in-aid to study bloggers in New Orleans, L.A. and the role they're playing in starting a discussion about the city's post-Katrina problems, particularly in the context of the decline of local news media. I'll then look at this in the larger context of the citizen media movement across the country in other post-industrial cities like Oakland, Calif., Richmond, Va., Buffalo, N.Y. and St. Louis, M.O. These cities all have the "perfect storm" of citizen bloggers who discuss weighty issues, civic problems and the decline of civic media.
So how do you feel about bloggers acting as journalists for communities?
You have to take blogs on a case-by-case basis. A lot of blogging activity is now done by former journalists who want to keep writing about important issues in their communities. There is also a strong movement of bloggers who don't have a traditional journalism background, but have a professional expertise and can create substantive, informative blogs. Yes, there is amateur reporting, but many amateur bloggers are reporting on issues of importance to their community. And blogs can go beyond journalistic purposes. Many blogs help residents relieve stress about local issues. We can't be too dismissive of the value of self expression.
Congratulations on your Top Dissertation Award from AEJMC. Do you plan to continue that research?
An ongoing interest of mine is the relationship between community structure and communication processes. In my dissertation, I looked at how community structure keeps certain civic issues from being discussed. Going forward, I want to turn that into a more positive model regarding community information needs -- looking at how community structure influences community information needs. For example, is there a relationship between the number of families with school-aged children and a demand for education related information? If we can find relationships between community structure, measured with demographic data, and information needs, we can understand not only current needs but also use demographic techniques to project that population forward to understand future information needs and how well a community is situated to meet those needs.
How does your background in newspapers affect your research?
I understand the role that a strong local news media can play in the civic life of a community. Because of my experience working at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, a lot of my research looks at disparities in access to local public affairs information and how that affects subcommunities. I hope my research improves the quality of public affairs information that communities have access to. -Sarah Howard