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November 8, 2019

New Guide: How to Get Started Funding Local News in Your Community

The First Step? Ask Questions and Listen

Credit: Tim Karr/Free Press News Voices

This blog post originally appeared on DemocracyFund.org.

By Teresa Gorman and Fiona Morgan

How do people in your community get news and information about what’s happening where they live? You might answer newspapers, TV, radio … but how about social media? Libraries? The community center bulletin board? The church bulletin? The neighborhood listserv? The neighborhood bar? 

Our news and information ecosystems are complex and evolving as media and technology change while at the same time local newspapers consolidate and disappear. They are important to learn about if you want to make a positive impact on your community. Whether your goal is raising awareness about clean water, improving community safety, increasing civic participation or any number of other goals, you won’t get far if your community lacks quality information and equitable ways to communicate and engage. 

This week, we’re excited to share that we’re launching a new tool that can help you map your media ecosystem to help find and support this information and engagement.

Click on this image to open the ecosystems mapping guide from Democracy Fund.

Across the country, foundations and philanthropists are coming to realize that local news and civic information is a critical element of a healthy community and democracy, and that they have a role to play in its future.

Local news organizations have faced a catastrophic economic downturn, as well as increasing questions about how well they do or do not serve the diverse communities that make up our country. This erosion in local news is tied to drops in civic engagement, weakened connections in communities, and escalating costs of government due to lack of accountability. 

We’ve heard many funders, philanthropists, and community foundations who are familiar with the problems say that it can be challenging to figure out the solutions — how can they get started supporting the future of news and information in their communities?

That’s why we created “A Guide to Assessing Your Local News Ecosystem” — to help answer this question. 

Dive in for Lessons From Across the Country

We’ve learned a lot through the assessments and funding choices we’ve undertaken in North Carolina, New Jersey, New Mexico, Colorado, Chicago, and beyond. Landscape analyses we commissioned in 2016 helped us decide where best to put our dollars, and have resulted in the establishment of the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, the New Mexico Local News Fund, and the New Jersey Local News Lab Fund, as well as the support of the Colorado Media Project, the Field Foundation’s Media & Storytelling Program, the Center for Cooperative Media, and more.

Each of these places and organizations are working in unique and powerful ways to rebuild local news in their region. 

Participants in a Colorado Media Project design group brainstorm what the local news ecosystem needs in the state. Credit: Gil Askawa.

The toolkit brings together some of this work we’ve done, along with the work of others we’ve learned from who are funding innovative and collaborative news efforts. We share case studies from funders we’ve learned from in Colorado, New Jersey, Detroit, and the Mountain West, and will share more in the months to come.

This step-by-step guide will help you gather the information you need to take informed, effective action to improve your local news and information ecosystem, just like these funders have.

Undertaking this type of assessment is important because at Democracy Fund we know there isn’t one solution to figuring out the future of local news, but many solutions together.

Funding with an ecosystem lens acknowledges that local news and information is interconnected and ever-changing. We don’t learn about our communities from any one source but from multiple sources and networks of trust. We learn valuable information from neighbors and listservs and community meetings as well as newspaper stories and radio programs. The makeup of those sources and networks depends on where we live. 

Credit: Detroit Public Television

When we keep people at the center of our thinking — not news organizations per se, not the journalism industry — we begin to see ways we can strengthen what already exists and determine which gaps need to be filled. Rather than grounding solutions in any one organization, Democracy Fund chooses to evaluate the big picture and find whether there’s possible infrastructure and supports to fund that can take on the task of supporting an entire news and information ecosystem.

Get Started Using the Guide

This guide can help you take a look at that big picture and chart a path forward. It starts with understanding what makes up a healthy news ecosystem, then walks through the ways you can get to know your community, including research and engagement methods you can tailor to your goals. Our “deep dive” section includes a trove of free and low-cost data sources as well as some simple scavenger hunt-style assignments to help you see what those sources have to offer. We talk through ways your organization can act on what you learn so that your assessment will inform collaboration and ongoing engagement. And since we know budgets and bandwidth vary, we offer ideas for ways to right-size your assessment to the resources you have.  

A scene from New Jersey based CivicStory’s Board of Directors meeting (with a special guest, 12-week-old Ila). Credit: CivicStory.

We’ve also included four case studies to flesh out our how-to guidance with concrete examples. These case studies show that each community is different, so what works in one place may not always work in another. This guide will help you find what the people in your own community need and how to make the greatest impact with the resources you have.

“Putting the people first was the most important element to our work. We didn’t do this because we thought we could save newspapers or newsrooms. We found it important that people in small towns have access to information to help them become more engaged citizens, so they’re able to make more informed decisions and they’re connected with the national conversation, the regional conversation, and the local conversation.”

– LaMonte Guillory of the LOR Foundation, on their work in the Rural Mountain West.

While this guide is primarily designed for philanthropic organizations, anyone interested in improving local news and information is invited to adapt it to suit their own research.

The story we often hear about local news is dire, but it doesn’t have to be. We can face the realities of what we’re losing and the impact on our democracy while also seeing the assets and opportunities that exist. By being thoughtful, informed, inclusive and by sharing what we learn, we can make local news more resilient and sustainable. 

Hear more from two of our featured interviewees Molly de Aguiar of the Independence Public Media Foundation and LaMonte Guillory of the LOR Foundation in a webinar on November 22 at 1 pm ET.

Email localnewslab@democracyfund.org for registration details.

Share your feedback, questions, and suggestions with us at localnewslab@democracyfund.org.