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February 15, 2019

What is a news ecosystem?

An illustration of a town that has the elements of an ecosystem - people reading, on social media, in their cars, watching tv, and more.

by Nancy Watzman, illustration by Joyce Rice

We admit: the term “news ecosystem” may have a certain hypnotic effect, lighting up circuits in the typical human brain to file under “jargon.” However, at the Democracy Fund, systems thinking fuels our decision making, and we believe the concept of a news ecosystem can be helpful for funders, news organizations, and supportive organizations in evaluating how to deploy resources effectively. In 2015, the Democracy Fund worked with partners to develop this systems map of the overall media ecosystem to help guide us in our planning.

You didn’t answer the question. What’s a news ecosystem already?

The key concept in ecosystems is that everything is in relationship to everything else. Like the crushed butterfly changing the future in the classic Ray Bradbury science fiction story, sometimes small differences can create big change, whether purposeful or accidental. In cities and regional areas across the country, thanks to many factors, news deserts and drylands have surfaced, with many legacy newspapers downsizing or going out of business. At the same time, innovative digital news startups are sending up green shoots. Each place is a unique landscape–a news ecosystem!–of different types of media, library and university resources, philanthropic organizations, and more.

So what is your funding philosophy on news ecosystems?

The Democracy Fund believes systemic problems require systemic solutions. The traditional model of journalism, in which several papers with coffers heavy from advertising dollars compete against each other to get the scoop, is no longer workable in most places. Rather than picking one news organization to fund, the Democracy Fund evaluates the big picture and whether there’s possible infrastructure to take on the task of supporting an entire news ecosystem. In Fall 2019, we shared more about that model and how other foundations can map their ecosystems with “A Guide to Assessing Your Local News Ecosystem.”

In that guide, we discuss various hub organizations and ecosystem builders.

What’s a hub organization?

Across the nation, hub organizations are emerging to support and strengthen local journalism. They are creating new kinds of connections between newsrooms, helping enable powerful journalism collaborations, testing alternative revenue models, and sparking new networks which together make local news more resilient and effective. Hub organizations focus on how to support the many players in their local news region, and connect them in ways that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts

What is an ecosystem builder?

Often the people that work at hub organizations are what we call ecosystem builders, but they can also be people at any type of organization in a region. They are relationship builders, often challenging local newsrooms and journalists to find common cause in strengthening local news and serving local communities. They keep on eye on how different elements fit together, what is flourishing, what could use some cultivation, what is missing. They move between communities and connect people in new ways. They’re the emerging, and current, leaders thinking about how local news can be different in the future.

Where has the Democracy Fund invested in news ecosystems so far?

Democracy Fund has invested in efforts in many regions at different levels and in many ways, including in New Jersey, North Carolina, Colorado, Chicago, and New Mexico. We have also provided advice, guidance and lessons learned to other funders and people interested in building healthier local news ecosystems. As a national funder we recognize that we are guests in these communities and have made grants in ways to ensure that funding decisions are rooted in local knowledge and experience.

In 2017, Democracy Fund announced major grants to two state-based local news funds: $1.3 million for the New Jersey Local News Lab Fund over two years and $700,000 over 18 months for the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. In 2018, Democracy Fund made a $400,000 grant in collaboration with the Thornburg Foundation to set up the New Mexico Local News Lab Fund, and contributed $200,000 to MacArthur and Field Foundations’ new Media and Storytelling Program in Chicago. In 2019, Democracy Fund made a $100,000 commitment to support the Gates Family Foundation’s investment in the startup of the Colorado Media Project.

Is there more information about each ecosystem investment?

We strive to be as transparent as possible about how to get involved in each region’s work and why and how we made decisions to invest in certain projects. While we bring our experience and research into regions, every community is different and led by local leaders to respond to local contexts so none of these efforts are identical.

The three Local News Lab funds, housed at the Community Foundation of New Jersey, the North Carolina Community Foundation, and the Santa Fe Community Foundation, are managed by advisory groups made up of local stakeholders and Democracy Fund staff. In Chicago and Colorado, the new funding efforts are informed and led by local leaders.

New Jersey: this infusion of investment follows successful experiments begun by the Knight Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The funding is helping to continue that momentum and broaden the work there beyond newsrooms to other civic information networks and institutions. Read more about the experience and lessons learned in New Jersey here.

North Carolina: Democracy Fund invested after commissioning local journalist and researcher Fiona Morgan to undertake a year-long research project on the strengths and challenges of local news and information in North Carolina. In August 2018, the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund announced $500,000 in grants to local organizations that help make up the news ecosystem locally, from a new investigative journalism collaborative to a project drawing together historically black colleges with public media, and more.

New Mexico: This work was informed by research started by Michael Marcotte supported by Democracy Fund in 2016. Thornburg Foundation expanded and deepened that research by supporting focus groups and further research led by New Mexico First. The New Mexico Local News Lab Fund is still in development.

Chicago: Similarly, Democracy Fund supported a landscape analysis of Chicago’s news ecosystem by Sheila Solomon and Andrea Hart in 2016. Through that research and learning from local foundation leaders, it became clear that supporting the city’s communities of color should be a priority of ecosystem investments. Since then, Democracy Fund invested in the Chicago startups City Bureau and the Obsidian Collection. We also supported the Media and Storytelling Program at the Field Foundation, which was started by a $3 million investment by MacArthur Foundation. That program launched funding in 2019.

Colorado: The Colorado Media Project began in 2018 as a short-term effort by the Gates Family Foundation to explore what was happening in Colorado’s news ecosystem and how to support it. After hundreds of conversations, focus groups, events, and more, Gates Family Foundation made a $1.125 million investment to establish the Colorado Media Project as an organization that would build long-term support and connective tissue to the state.

What’s next?

The Democracy Fund is continuing to explore news ecosystems and learn how best to support local voices and needs. There are several questions we are grappling with this year as this work expands, including:

  • How do we responsibly bring in national resources to local ecosystems, including from our national grantees such as OpenSource, INN, LION, NewsMatch, the Center for Cooperative Media, and the New School?
  • How do we best support ecosystem builders?
  • How do we share lessons more broadly while also continuing to make each ecosystem stronger?
  • How can we connect these efforts, including ecosystem building supported by other foundations such as Knight Foundation, Lenfest Institute, Heinz Foundation and others in places like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Detroit.

Going forward, we’ll be evaluating the programs we’re funding, exploring these and more questions, and updating our mapping as situations change. We believe that the future of local news will be collaborative and system-wide, and we’ll be continuing to explore ways we can make a difference.

Want to keep up with the Democracy Fund’s work in local news ecosystems?

Nancy Watzman works on strategic initiatives with Dot Connector Studio. She recently joined Colorado Media Project as acting director. Joyce Rice is an artist and graphic designer who works with Dot Connector Studio.