About This Guide

Credit: Democracy Fund
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Why is studying local news ecosystems so critical to supporting local news?

Across the country, there’s a movement of people working to build stronger local news for local communities — not by funding one newsroom at a time, but by understanding and supporting entire local ecosystems. These efforts are working to ensure all people have access to trustworthy news and information from newsrooms to libraries, churches, social media, university centers and more. A healthy news ecosystem is made up of all of these sources of information and the relationships that connect them.

We created this guide to respond to a growing need for a practical, step-by-step toolkit for funders and others to learn about these interconnected news and information sources in their local communities. But here’s why we think it is needed in the first place:

Why Study Local News Ecosystems?

Credit: Janet Reasoner for High Country News

The purpose of assessing a local news and information ecosystem is to take informed action. As funders concerned about the health of local communities and how those communities are informed and engaged, we recognize that this new landscape can feel daunting and impossible to navigate. How do we understand, fund, and support positive change?

An illustration of a news ecosystem. Illustration by Joyce Rice

Since 2011, Democracy Fund has been building stronger local news and information ecosystems as part of our efforts to strengthen our nation’s civic life. We’ve commissioned studies from experts in the field and funded projects across the country that incorporate ecosystem assessments as part of their work. You can see some of those studies at LocalNewsLab.org.

A group of students looking at copies of the Highlands Current at a visit to the newspaper's office. Credit: Michael Turton. Students visiting the Highlands Current.

As we’ve pursued this work, we’ve learned alongside partner foundations, community organizations, scholars, and others. Some have asked us for guidance on how they might undertake their own funding of journalism in their regions. A key way to start is to learn what is actually happening around you, including the gaps, opportunities, and needs of the community.

CALmatters political reporter Laurel Rosenhall interviewing a politician. Credits: CALmatters. Political reporter Laurel Rosenhall at work

We commissioned this guide from author Fiona Morgan, a former journalist and expert in local news assessments, to bring together the work we’ve done and the work of others we’ve learned from about assessing and getting started funding news and information locally. While this guide is primarily designed for philanthropic organizations, we hope that others interested in improving local news and information could adapt it to suit their own research.

You’ll find examples of how place-based funders, community foundations, and others took on projects to improve the ecosystems where they live — and how to right-size your assessment to fit your organization’s capacity. Some of the research we describe is elaborate, but don’t be overwhelmed: Assessing your community ecosystem need not be expensive, and there’s no one right way to do it.

A male reporter from the Center for Investigative Reporting interviews two female subjects. Credit: Center for Investigative Reporting.

There is no magic bullet to solving this civic crisis. No one organization will save local news, nor will a single donor’s check fix the systemic problems causing this crisis. The good news is that, no matter how big or small your organization, you have a role to play in making the ecosystem stronger. By asking questions, listening, learning, sharing, inviting collaboration, and making strategic choices, you can make a difference.

Student staff work to contact potential donors and organizations that rely on JJIE and YouthToday stories for their work. Credit: Center for Sustainable Journalism. Student staff work to contact potential donors and organizations that rely on JJIE and YouthToday stories for their work.
Fiona Morgan

About
The Author

About The Author

Fiona Morgan is an independent consultant based in Durham, North Carolina. A former journalist with a background in media research and engaged journalism practice, she works to improve local news and information ecosystems through applied research and the design and facilitation of public engagement.

In 2011, she authored one of the first in-depth case studies of a local news ecosystem as part of New America’s Media Policy Initiative, bringing her expertise as a media reporter to map out a holistic picture of news and information in the Raleigh-Durham Research Triangle area of North Carolina. More recently, we engaged her as a local news consultant to author an ecosystem study that broadened that scope, looking at news and civic information across North Carolina. As journalism program director at the national nonprofit advocacy organization Free Press, she co-created and led the News Voices project in New Jersey and North Carolina. She founded Branchhead Consulting in 2018.

Get Started

Section 1

What Is A News Ecosystem

Section 2

Start Your Research

Section 3

Take A Deep Dive Into The Media Landscape

Section 4

Act On What You’ve Learned

Section 5

Right-Size Your Assessment

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Case Studies & Resources

Case Study

Colorado – Investing In The Future

Case Study

Detroit – Leveling The Playing Field

Case Study

Intermountain West – Small Towns, Big Change

Case Study

New Jersey – Ecosystem In Action

Democracyfund.org

localnewslab.org

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