From Collaborations to Ecosystem Building: What a News Ecosystem Hub Takes

Ten people of varying demographics sit around a table covered in sticky notes and laptops while looking at and listening to each other.
A group of local journalists discuss the possibilities and challenges for collaborative reporting in New Mexico at a 2019 summit organized by the New Mexico Local News Fund | Provided by Sarah Gustavus Lim

By Sarah Gustavus Lim

 This is part three in a series of posts about local news Ecosystem Hubs. Part one shared lessons from an established hub in New Mexico and part two highlighted other hubs across the country.

How do you get started with ecosystem building?

One strategy for bringing together diverse stakeholders in ways that support increased access to local news and info is to leverage established collaborations between journalism organizations or civic organizations.

Collaboratives have exploded in the journalism industry in recent years. Some start as short-term reporting projects on a single topic between a few newsrooms. They can even turn into standalone organizations created to manage ongoing collaborations that include staff who work on behalf of the collaborative.

The Center for Cooperative Media defines collaborative journalism as “the practice of executing journalistic endeavors using a cross-entity approach,” which is very similar to what we see emerging in new Local News Ecosystem Hubs. Collaboratives that may have started out with shared reporting goals on a topic or issue can build a foundation of trust that evolves into a more permanent Ecosystem Hub that provides a backbone of support for a range of activities.

I’ve seen how powerful collaboratives can be in not only covering important issues but building the types of relationships that can support coordination across the entire local news ecosystem. Before launching the New Mexico Local News Fund (NMLNF), I worked with different groups of journalists on collaborative reporting projects. In People, Power and Democracy, four local news nonprofits covered state government and the legislature. In 2018, when I was a producer at New Mexico PBS we partnered with the Carlsbad Current-Argus on a series about how the oil boom in southeastern New Mexico had impacted the local housing market.

Beyond Editorial Collaboration

Local News Ecosystem Hubs bring together stakeholders that share the common goal of supporting increased access to local news and information. These include journalists and news outlets, but are not limited to those organizations. Ecosystem hubs may take on activities like conducting research on current needs in the ecosystem, fundraising, organizing reporting collaboratives, or building new relationships with both journalism and non-journalism partners.

Many journalism collaboratives are organized around a particular project or topic. They provide a great foundation of trust and experimentation for future ecosystem building, but aren’t quite yet a hub.

Sometimes a collaborative can evolve into an ecosystem hub. One example already underway is in  New Hampshire, where the four-year-old Granite State News Collaborative continues to grow. That collaborative got its start with support from the Local Media Project, managed by the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) that now includes more than 20 partners.

Hubs like the Granite State News Collaborative can raise money to support new local newsrooms, launch pilots to experiment with new responses to local needs, bring together community members and journalists, and advocate for local news and information with funders and civic leaders.

Members Meet More Needs

Executive Director Melanie Plenda says the collaborative can be considered as an ecosystem hub because the group is open to many different kinds of partners. “Our bylaws have some basic rules in place: you can’t be a partisan outlet or only [exist] to do advertising,” she says, and “we have basic journalism guidelines but other than that, we are welcoming to anyone who wants to be a member.”

Members represent a range of types of media across the state, from nonprofit newsrooms to legacy newspapers. The collaborative started with reporting and sharing stories, but it has since evolved to respond to the needs and priorities of members serving community info needs while also sharing investigative reporters, training, and coordination for reporting on statewide issues. Plenda was a longtime journalist who worked with local and national outlets before taking on her current role with the collaborative.

Relationships Really Matter

Collaboration is a great way to build relationships and trust. Plenda witnessed this firsthand. Journalists were open to the idea of collaboration but didn’t know what it would like until the pandemic created a need for shared coverage. “The first step was just starting a news exchange,” says Plenda, “It was so simple and yet the biggest transformation in our attitudes towards each other.”

I saw a similar shift in collaborations in New Mexico. Collaboration with other reporters not only improved the quality of stories I produced for our local audience at New Mexico PBS, but the relationships that I developed through past collaborations were crucial in the early years of the New Mexico Local News Fund. Other journalists knew me and were willing to engage in conversations about how we could bring together different partners who all shared the same goal of supporting local news. I believe that values of collaboration played a significant role in establishing NMLNF, which now includes deeper and more diverse relationships across the state. (Read more about my experience launching the New Mexico Local News Fund here)

Fundraising For the Whole

The partners in New Hampshire are also now exploring potential areas of growth for their local news ecosystem. A priority that has emerged recently is the need to fundraise — both on behalf of the collaborative and to help individual news outlets get the support they need to thrive. Melanie Plenda and a group of local journalism leaders are working with Report for America to create a new community  news fund. They’re educating local funders about the value of supporting high quality local reporting. The goal is to make the case for local news long-term, ideally attracting more support instead of dividing attention of local funders. “It would bring in more local funders, change their minds and bring in new and different partners which would benefit everyone,” says Plenda.

“It would bring in more local funders, change their minds and bring in new and different partners which would benefit everyone,”

What’s Ahead

 There are many other Ecosystem Hubs actively working on projects across the United States. You may want to check out organizations like the Colorado Media Project, North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, Oklahoma Media Center, Chicago Independent Media Alliance or the New Mexico Local News Fund.

Ecosystem building and collaboration can complement each other in exciting ways and I hope to see more examples of how the lessons from both are shifting how ecosystem leaders are responding to news and information needs in their community.

This is the third of three posts on ecosystem building. Read more in part one and part two.  If you want to talk about ecosystem building or starting a hub, fill out this form.

Sarah Gustavus Lim is the founder and former co-director of the New Mexico Local News Fund, of which Democracy Fund is a funder. Prior to launching NMLNF, she worked for more than 15 years in public radio and television in New Mexico and Washington State. She partners with Democracy Fund to support emerging ecosystem leaders.