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Napoli, New to Sanford’s Faculty, Takes Pulse of Local Journalism, Social Media

September 8, 2016


By Susannah Roberson

Phil Napoli joins Sanford faculty this fall as the James R. Shepley professor of public policy and a faculty affiliate of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. He comes to Duke from Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Napoli’s field of expertise is media regulation and policy. His recent book, Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences, examines how developments in technology have affected how the media make sense of their audiences.

Phil Napoli portrait“As media became more interactive, it really opened up all these new paths for gathering information about audiences,” Napoli said. “It reconfigured how different types of media think about their audience, and how advertisers think about what makes an audience valuable.”

Napoli first knew he wanted to go into research when he found himself writing not one, but two, senior theses as a rhetoric and film double major at UC, Berkeley.

“It dawned on me that I wasn’t stressed out; I was actually loving this,” Napoli said. “Writing two theses at a time was a blast. I said, ‘If there’s a way I can do this for a living, maybe I should look into that.’ “

Napoli brings several ongoing research projects with him to Duke. With one, he is seeking to evaluate the “health” of local journalism.

“What we’re trying to figure out is what conditions affect the state of local journalism,” Napoli said. “So what kind of communities are most in danger, are most in need of help, as far as preserving and revitalizing local journalism?”

The research is still in the early stages. Napoli is gathering data on 100 different communities of different types, all around the country, to get a sense of the characteristics for at-risk communities.

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  • Phil Napoli presenting

    Phil Napoli, the James R. Shepley professor of public policy and a faculty affiliate of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, giving a talk.

Another project Napoli is a study of algorithm-based social media platforms and their roles as news outlets.

“There are principles that apply to more traditional news platforms, and I want to investigate if they can or should be applied to algorithmically controlled platforms like Facebook,” Napoli said.

According to Napoli, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Buzzfeed are very active in asserting that they’re technology companies, not media companies.

“These platforms don’t see themselves as news organizations, yet we’re all using them as news organizations. Such platforms are increasingly really important intermediaries in how people get their news,” Napoli said. “There’s a disconnect there, and I’m trying to make the case that policymakers need to be paying more attention to that.”

The issue needs attention for a reason, Napoli says. How a company is classified determines what regulations it has to follow and what societal norms it should meet.

Napoli, who has previously worked in business and communications schools, says he was eager to test the waters in a policy school such as Sanford.

“I’m really excited to be in a public policy school,” he said. “So much of my work has focused on media and information policy, and I’ve always thought that the best home for me would be a public policy school.”

Napoli’s love of research hasn’t faded since his senior year at UC, Berkeley.

“There’s no part of this job that I don’t love,” he said. “Working with students on research, designing projects, getting their work published -- that’s a tremendous amount of fun. And the process of writing is just a ton of fun for me.”

For Napoli, fun outside of work means spending time with his family. Playing soccer and building Legos with his 6-year-old son are some of his favorite activities.

He also has a passion for racquetball. “If I’m not at work or at home, you can find me on the racquetball court,” he says. He’s not playing around; Napoli was a New Jersey state champion in the sport a few years back.

Napoli will kick off his Sanford teaching career with the policy journalism and media studies program’s capstone course this fall.