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Bloom or Gloom in the Media Wilderness?

Two areas of entrepreneurial ecosystem research call for urgent attention. First, most research has been largely urban-centric, in spite of the structural urban and rural differences in terms of scale, scope, size, and the urgent need for rural economic development. Second, media as an important venue for the entrepreneurial ecosystem has been frequently mentioned but not well studied.

Media can serve as an integral part of entrepreneurial ecosystems as cheerleaders, network builders, and information brokers. Media coverage, in terms of volume, content, and tone, are useful signals and facilitators of start-up growth. In particular, digital and social media have become the conduits and the locales of a new generation of entrepreneurship.

Local print and broadcasting media have been vital fabrics and storytellers of rural communities. Hyper-localized, rural media feature local residents’ lives, showcase local entrepreneurs, sponsor local community events, and provide accessible and affordable marketing venues for local businesses with small budgets. However, local media are declining. About one out of ten counties in rural Texas (and more than 1,300 communities across America) have become news deserts without one single local newspaper as strategic investors such as Gannett, Digital Firsts, or Gatehouse have purchased, closed, merged, downsized hundreds of local dailies and weeklies (Abernathy, 2018; Guzmán, 2019). For locations where at least some media outlets have survived, staff and budget cuts often lead to a media wilderness with reduced local coverage. The decline of local media may hurt good governance and local entrepreneurship: local newspaper closure is found to go hand in hand with higher municipal government wages and more costly municipal finance practices (Gao, Lee & Murphy, 2018).

Digital media are filling some but not all the gaps left by legacy media. A recent analysis shows that only 4% out of about 150,000 local news stories distributed on Facebook were about economic development and the average engagement was189 interactions per post, slightly higher than school news and obituaries (Weber, Andringa, & Napoli, 2019). In addition, a quarter of rural Texans (1.25 million) have no access to broadband, leaving over $5 billion in potential economic benefit unrealized among disconnected households (Connected Nation, 2018).

Yet, few studies have examined how the declining local media and a lack of up-to-date digital infrastructure hinders rural entrepreneurial ecosystems. A better understanding is in urgent need in terms of how specific institutional, ecological and cultural dynamics in rural and small-town contexts shape the relationship between media, especially digital media, and entrepreneurship. Is it a media wilderness or a news desert out there? What are the business models, circulation/reach, scope, size, opportunities and challenges of media organizations and entrepreneurs across multiple platforms in the local ecosystem? In what ways do media contribute to the bloom or gloom of the local entrepreneurial ecosystem for new venture formation and business growth? How do local media facilitate entrepreneurs and other key stakeholders (i.e. government officials, community leaders, educational institution leaders, and other experts) to scan the environment and mobilize resources to  grow the profile and visibility of the entrepreneurial ecosystem? Together with my colleague Dr. Joseph Straubhaar, I am leading an IC2-funded project to address these questions in three locations in Texas: Zapata in the Rio Grande Valley, Marfa, and Taylor.

Dr. Wenhong Chen is associate professor of media and sociology and the founding co-director of the Media and Entertainment Industries Program in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.

E-mail: wenhong.chen@austin.utexas.edu Twitter: @wenhongchen