October 25, 2012
Photo of Michelle Ferrier

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is a digital content architect and Associate Professor of Communications at Elon University. She is also the founder and managing editor of LocallyGrownNews.com, and Vice President of Journalism That Matters, a nonprofit organization focused on the new news ecology and media entrepreneurship.

With varied experience as a community activist, educator, entrepreneur, media consultant, online journalist, photographer, and technologist, her work developing and researching online communities and knowledge management has resulted in numerous conference presentations, publications, and awards.

More information about Michelle and her accomplishments may be found here.

What is your current job title and institutional/organizational affiliation?
I am an Associate Professor in the School of Communications at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina. The School of Communications offers undergraduate degrees in Journalism, Strategic Communications, Broadcast & New Media, Cinema, Communication Science, and Sport & Event Management. We also offer an MA in Interactive Media.
I teach courses in Communications for a Global Age, Writing for the Media, Virtual Environments, Publication Layout & Design, Magazine Publishing and Design, and Digital Media Entrepreneurship.
How did you find your first position after graduating with a degree in T&T?
A colleague of mine who I had worked with in the past and who knew of my interest in new and interactive media told me a position was open at Elon. I applied for and got the job.
What is the most interesting part of your job?
I can think of a couple of things. First, because the area of digital media—and journalism in particular—are changing so rapidly, how the work is done and by whom and where it is deployed are all in a transformative state. These dynamics allow me to play with it more to understand it, and to shape it as I do my research and work with students.
Second, I enjoy the challenge of developing curriculum for these emerging fields. I revamped, for example, a magazine publishing class so that it became more entrepreneurial. Digital media entrepreneurship is of great interest to me, and I’m looking at emerging forms of digital media communications such as hyperlocal online news and social media platforms.
What are some examples of digital or analog texts that you deal with in some capacity in your current position?
I’ve had a seven-year interest in hyperlocal online news and have been engaged in creating and designing access points for it. Hyperlocal niche sites write for a specific geographical area, usually much smaller than the area that could be reached by a news or radio outlet. Hyperlocal news is typically relevant to that specific area and creates social cohesion in the local community.
I work with content management systems and social media tools—Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest—to build community conversation. LocallyGrownNews.com is an example of an online community I launched with the assistance of a $10,000 grant from the McCormick Foundation through its J-Lab New Media Women Entrepreneurs program. The content of the site focuses on locally grown produce and local goods as the entry into conversations about sustainability and local economies.
How do you incorporate technology into your current work?
I used the USDA’s food map technology to begin mobilizing community action through the LocallyGrownNews site. Now, I’m working with GIS technologies to visualize the impact of the changing media landscape. There are media deserts out there—geographic and/or topical hotspots that lack fresh news and information sources. We use the GIS data with newspaper circulation and media reach data to determine the location of these media deserts and have begun to formulate policies and intervention strategies to provide news and information of value to the communities identified.
How relevant was your course work to your current career? How has understanding the theory helped you? The practical?
The course work provided tools to help analyze, understand, read, and define texts broadly. This enabled me to understand the current landscape in the area of journalism, strategic communication and digital advocacy.
Can you describe a recent project or publication you have worked on that was especially exciting to you or that you are especially proud of?
The projects mentioned—LocallyGrownNews and Media Deserts—are all wonderful. What I’m excited about now is moving from awareness and education to action as we understand more about the layers of the media pie. We have submitted a proposal to the FCC (the policy maker for broadcast work) that focuses on underrepresented communities. I want to help dive in to make better policies for new broadcast and media outlets.
What do you see as the challenge to innovation in your work?
Newspapers are now referred to as “legacy media” and we’ve just learned of Newsweek’s leap to a digital-only format. But as with the auto industry, the distractions of ever-changing technology and lack of understanding of the larger cultural shifts can slow down the capacity of news organizations to adapt to such change. We must find a sustainable model for providing news. News and information is critical to a democracy. The definitions and names are changing rapidly and we must protect freedom of the press during this transformation.
How did the Texts and Technology program help shape your current research agenda?
The program encouraged me to look at the world and data differently. Media Deserts is a direct result of the interface design and visualization work done in the Texts & Technology program.
Is there any particular moment from your T&T experience that stands out as an especially memorable (or valuable) moment for you?
We brainstormed in an intro course about ways that research could be done differently, beyond the traditional qualitative and quantitative methods. That one exercise led me to find my area of interest, my dissertation topic, and my current research. Subsequent work in visual rhetoric and interface design systems enabled me to challenge my approach, my point of view, and ultimately how best to apply research to my topic.
What was something important you learned outside of the classroom while enrolled in the program?
The value of collaboration and juxtaposition. I carpooled with another student and on our long rides we’d talk about our research, which was in different fields but connected by the T&T coursework. These conversations helped broaden my perspective and highlighted how the coursework has the flexibility to apply across disciplines. We’re still throwing weird things up against one another and appreciate the results.
What would you hope for as we aim to continually improve the T&T program?

  • Look at business models to bring a media entrepreneurship sensibility to the program. Consider models from management, online education, serious games, and their interface designs—these can all be applied in both academe and business.
  • Provide opportunities to explore how the theories taught in the program have been applied. Engage other scholars and researchers, and business founders from across the country.
  • Consider a separate course that grounds you in the interdisciplinary landscape so you know the scholars in the space and you learn where to place your scholarly efforts. For example what are the respected journals by discipline, who are the key players?
What other advice would you give to current Texts and Technology students to help prepare them for their future careers?

  • Aim for your career as a student to be short, not long. Find an idea early and work that same topic against every angle, work-shopping that idea in each subsequent course. Try writing a few papers on the topic.
  • T&T graduates will be the trail blazers. People are looking for these types of individuals. There are no roadmaps, but the degree is malleable and creative. Don’t be afraid to be a trailblazer, and know that you are not alone—there are alums!
Any closing thoughts?
T&T graduates have the advantage of seeing the big picture overall, and can understand and communicate about the possible implications of large digital transformations in culture. The program has given me a great perspective for looking at the future in a different way, and provides different vantage points for action.