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June 2012

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Citizen Newshounds and Newspaper Math: Two Doctoral Students Study Real-World Applications of Journalism

Doctoral Dissertations
Journalism student Phylicia Johnson peruses the online archive of Missouri School of Journalism doctoral dissertations. Photo by Julie Willbrand.

Doreen Marchionni and You Li Experience Soul-Searching and World Travels during the Journeys to Their Doctorates

By Julie Willbrand
Strategic Communication Student

Eye contact. Gestures. A nod of the head. Much is involved in verbal conversation between two people, but what happens when that conversation goes one step further and actually becomes news?

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This is what Doreen Marchionni, PhD '09, set out to discover through her doctoral research at the Missouri School of Journalism. The school's doctoral students have written approximately 3,000 dissertations, with topics including feeling-tone transfer, effects of typeface on message perception, nonprofit environmental advertising, sarcasm in news media and heart disease coverage. The dissertations are available online through the Frank Lee Martin Library.

The students at the Missouri School of Journalism stand out among doctoral students throughout the nation because of the timeliness and applicability of their dissertations, says Esther Thorson, dean of graduate studies and research.

"A lot of dissertations move theory ahead and maybe find out something new, but not a lot of dissertations are immediately applied in the real world," Thorson says. "But many of ours are."

Thorson thinks that former student Marchionni is a great example of Missouri Journalism doctoral students' progressive research.

Considering Journalism as a Conversation: Doreen Marchionni, PhD '09

It took a mid-life wakeup call and a history of citizen newshounds to motivate Washington state native Doreen Marchionni to return to school for her doctorate.

Doreen Marchionni
Doreen Marchionni sought to explore methods of measuring journalism as a conversation during her doctoral studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. Photo courtesy of Doreen Marchionni.

Marchionni attended the University of Washington in Seattle in the mid 1980s, graduating with her BA in communications with a focus in print journalism in 1989. Afterward, she began work at the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash. Six years later she decided to return to school and earned her master's in American studies at Columbia University in New York in 1996. She then returned to the industry and focused on breaking-news reporting. She eventually landed as an editor at the Seattle Times from 2002 to 2006.

Marchionni thrived in the fast-paced environment of the newsroom. But after a close friend passed away of a fatal asthma attack when Marchionni was in her 40s, she took a step back to analyze her life and ask herself the question, "Have I truly done everything I wanted to do?"

Marchionni had spent 17 years in the newspaper industry, but when she realized the answer to her self-imploring question was "no," she left the Northwest to pursue her doctorate at the Missouri School of Journalism in 2007. "Anyone in the industry" viewed the school as prestigious, Marchionni says, and she felt it would be a good place for her to get her degree.

Marchionni chose the topic of journalism as a conversation for her dissertation, a subject she first acquired an interest in during her time working in newsrooms.

"We used to get 'lobby calls,'" she says. "It was basically a euphemism for people coming into the lobby of the newspaper off the street. They might be holding a manila envelope filled with frayed documents, and they would ask to speak with a journalist because they had a pitch."

Marchionni didn't mind talking to strangers and usually ended up being the person sent to speak with these inquiring citizens. To her, they were real citizens with real concerns about their community, and she wanted to hear their side of the story.


"Marchionni's research set the stage for modern-day media and citizen journalism," Thorson says. "It formed a model that many national media outlets would implement in their standard programs."

"I often wondered when these people just showed up in the lobby, 'Why?' What made them feel like they had a role in the journalistic process?" Marchionni says.

Little did Marchionni know how intrigued she would become by their impassioned convictions and dedication to the news.

For her dissertation, Marchionni examined extensive psychological research about what, exactly, defines a "conversation." Then, she worked with Thorson to develop criteria to measure these factors in regard to audience perception of conversational versus traditional (more one-way, lecture-style) news.

"Marchionni's research set the stage for modern-day media and citizen journalism," Thorson says. "It formed a model that many national media outlets would implement in their standard programs."

As part of their research, Marchionni and Thorson developed units of measurement used to quantify journalism as a conversation.

"I think that's really one of the most significant contributions of her dissertation," Thorson says. "Now you can measure how much people think of news as a conversation when citizens have contributed, as opposed to just hearing a reporter lecture."

One of the criteria the pair developed for measuring audience perception was "co-orientation." In a conversation between two people, it's natural for both parties to start to feel they share a background, spend more time together and become more attracted to each other, Thorson says. Presumably, the more people co-orient, the more they like each other. So, Thorson and Marchionni measured how much people liked news stories that contained a combination of reporter and citizen contributions.

Co-orientation, as measured by how much the audience tended to identify with the newscaster, proved to be was the most powerful variable in influencing an audience member's perception of news as conversational and credible.

Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media is a pioneer of conversational journalism. Eight years ago, the station launched the Public Insight Journalism initiative devoted to bringing more citizen voices into the news, and that program has since been implemented in several dozen newsrooms around the country. Linda Fantin, director of the Public Insight Network of citizen sources, attended Marchionni's research talk at the 2011 South by Southwest conference, and they've been fast friends ever since, looking for ways to collaborate. For instance, Marchionni provided some guidance to Fantin on a grant renewal application that year and has developed a mock-PIN learning unit in her social media classes at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., where Marchionni teaches.

Many news organizations, such as CNN and Fox, now format programs using this concept, using conversational journalism research as a model.

"I was lucky to have a big-brained adviser in Esther," Marchionni says. "Big ideas, big ambitions. Because I had the right adviser in this adventure, it worked out well."

Doreen Marchionni at Poynter Institute
Marchionni discusses her research on journalism as a conversation at the Poynter Institute in 2009. Photo courtesy of Doreen Marchionni.

Once she graduated in 2009 and returned home, Marchionni immediately began presenting her research at conferences and in newsrooms around the country. Her tour included The Seattle Times (June 2009); The Poynter Institute "Big Ideas Conference" (summer 2009); RJI at the Missouri School of Journalism (summer 2009); Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) News Train conference (February 2010); The Tacoma News Tribune (spring 2010); AEJMC Denver (August 2010); The Fearey Group in Seattle (fall 2010); Visiting Norwegian media economists gathered at New York University (January 2011); South by Southwest Interactive (March 2011), which also included an interview with Jeremy Fuksa for a 5by5 podcast; and Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media (May 2011).

After all this experience, Marchionni says she still hasn't quite found or created her dream job in the academy or in the industry, but she feels she is getting close. In the meantime, she continues to interpret her research on her blog and hopes to see it continued to be integrated into mainstream media.

Looking back on it all, though, Marchionni believes she personally got out of her doctorate what she wanted to on that eye-opening day of self-reflection after the passing of her good friend.

Doreen Marchionni and Fred Fico
Marchionni shares the camera with Fred Fico of Michigan State University at the 2008 AEJMC poster presentation in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Doreen Marchionni.

"I do feel more fulfilled," she says. "I'm still incredibly passionate about this concept, and I will take it to my grave. I believe in it, and I believe it is the future."

Business Meets Journalism: You Li, PhD '12

Journalists do not normally count math as one of their greatest talents, Thorson says, but doctoral student You Li has set out to defy that stereotype. Li has applied her affinity for both subjects to contribute to her unique and innovative research at the Missouri School of Journalism.

"Most journalists aren't too mathematical, but that's what makes it very, very rewarding for me to work with You," Thorson says.

You Li with Wooden Scrolls
You Li examines a set of wooden scrolls in Neff Hall at the Missouri School of Journalism. The artwork was a gift from MU graduate Y.P. Wang, who traveled to the US to pursue his degree at the Missouri School of Journalism after hearing Williams speak in China in 1921. Photo by Julie Willbrand.

Li studied English and international journalism at Shanghai International Studies University with a minor in economics at Fudan University. While studying Chinese journalism history, she read that the first journalism school was the Missouri School of Journalism. Even better, she read that founding dean Walter Williams traveled to China to help start journalism programs there.

Li already knew she wanted to pursue her master's degree after her undergraduate studies, and after learning of the Missouri School of Journalism's history and prestige, she decided to move to the United States to do so at the University of Missouri.

After earning her master's, Li spent the summer of 2008 interning at Fortune magazine in New York. One of her major projects involved covering the Global 500 companies' ranking and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After that summer, the Missouri School of Journalism offered her a scholarship package for her doctorate, which she accepted.

"I really appreciated this opportunity," she says. "The master's program is very practical. The doctoral program, though, involves much more American culture and communication; it has really opened my mind."

You Li
Originally from China, You Li has traveled halfway around the world in pursuit of her education and research. Photo courtesy of You Li.

During the first year of her doctoral studies, Li chose to study the evolution of business journalism throughout media history. She had developed an interest in this topic while writing her master's thesis, and which also led to her later research on the interpretation of contemporary media business through both journalistic and business principles.

For her resulting research, Li developed a series of analytical variables to analyze the correlation between a newspaper's content and financial successes, based on audience perception. She and Thorson then analyzed two newspapers' financial histories spanning 10 years, and Li was able to incorporate her business, economics and mathematical backgrounds to delve even further into the research. She used mathematical formulas to predict the profitability of each paper based on content.

About Doctoral Study at the J-School

The Missouri School of Journalism was awarded the nation's first doctor of philosophy in journalism degree in 1934.

With a faculty consisting of 25 scholars respected for their work in journalism, mass communication and strategic communication, doctoral students will earn their degree in the midst of a rich intellectual environment.

For more details about the program, please visit the J-School's Doctoral Program pages.

To learn more about dissertations written by Missouri School of Journalism students, please visit the Frank Lee Martin Journalism Library website.

Using her research findings, Li's dissertation examines different types of news content - hard news, soft news, local news, international news, features, news stories and opinion pieces - to predict how well the newspaper is doing financially. She hopes to find ways to apply this model as a lucrative resource for businesses in the future, following in the footsteps of other Missouri School of Journalism doctoral students who have made waves in the academic and media worlds with their dissertations and continued research.

Li and Thorson are analyzing the second of two newspaper's 10-year histories. They hope to see their research implemented in the paper's business model after the conclusion of their work. Presumably, the newspapers, which have to remain anonymous due to the proprietary nature of the research, will use their results to increase the percentage of more profitable content and decrease that of the less profitable. Thorson also envisions this model being useful as an analytical tool for any newspaper to examine what types of content are most lucrative in relation to their readership.

Esther Thorson and You Li
Thorson and Li review their research, which delves into the overlap of mathematics and journalism. Photo by Julie Willbrand.

"This is a very revolutionary idea," Thorson says. "You wouldn't think, 'Oh gosh, a newspaper that has a bunch of feature material would do way better financially than one that didn't,' but actually, that's what we've found so far."

Li and Thorson have found that actual news content accounts for approximately 5 percent to 10 percent of variance in a newspaper's profit from month to month. Translated into dollars of revenue, that's a very powerful statistic, Thorson says.

Li and Thorson also partnered with graduate business students in their research through MU business professor Murali Montrala.

"I knew there were more sophisticated econometric models out there, which would allow us to do so much more," Thorson says. "So, I just went trolling."

This "trolling" led to a lasting relationship between the schools of business and journalism, headed by Montrala and Thorson, Thorson says. Several of the business students have analyzed other parts of these same newspapers' business for their respective research categories, such as advertisements, while journalism students like Li have focused more on the content/revenue connection.

Li's groundbreaking work is just one example of how doctoral research at the Missouri School of Journalism stands out among other doctoral programs, Thorson says. The journalism doctoral program is ranked as the No. 1 doctoral program at the University of Missouri, as well as in the top 10 journalism and communication doctoral programs in the nation, she says.

Just as many other doctoral students have gone on to become successful professors, administrators and other professionals, Li is excited to pursue the next step in her career. She has accepted a position as a tenure-track assistant professor and Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., and will start this summer.

"The school has nurtured me for so many years, and now I can go spread Mizzou spirit in a new place," Li says.

Julie Willbrand Julie Willbrand graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism in May. During her time at the University of Missouri, she served as marketing director of Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity, public relations coordinator for YAYA Connection and VP of merchandise and design for the Society for Human Resource Management. Willbrand also taught a strategic design and visuals lab section as an undergraduate teacher's assistant. She currently works at Visionworks Marketing Group in Columbia as the public relations coordinator and copywriter, and she plans to return to the school to pursue her master's in the spring.


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