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December 9, 2019

The Future of Local News is People

This post is the first in a series on the future of local news, and how funders, civic leaders and everyday people can get involved. You’ll learn about the work of ecosystem builders, whose stories can inspire your use of our new Guide to Assessing Your Local News Ecosystem.

by Kip Dooley

Small outlets like Street Sense media are essential to local news ecosystems
A vendor for Street Sense media in Washington, D.C. (Kip Dooley)

The future of local news is already being built.

What’s the future of local news?

Local news is critical for democracy in countless ways, and although many outlets have been forced to downsize or close in recent years, local news itself is being rebuilt and transformed at the very same time.

Local journalists and community members are developing new business models, programming, and pathways to connect with their readers, charting new territory and learning as they go. Philanthropists and civic leaders have an important role to play in supporting this new future for local news and information — one that goes beyond one-time investments or keeping a local paper afloat.

Democracy Fund's Guide to Assessing your Local News Ecosystem

For those who want to learn how to get involved, Democracy Fund has just published “A Guide to Assessing your Local News Ecosystem.” It will equip you with research methods and practical advice for how to assess your area’s news and information needs, and how to turn those insights into action. 

The future of local news is people

To inspire your thinking around how to put the toolkit to use, we’re sharing stories of people in news ecosystems that can help you on this journey – we call them Ecosystem Builders.

A participant at Stories of Atlantic City
A participant at Stories of Atlantic City, a community-centered media project funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in New Jersey. (Tim Karr)

Ecosystem builders occupy a new role in journalism, helping the whole ecosystem thrive. 

Ecosystem Builders are core to the success of a healthy local news ecosystem. As we write in the ecosystem toolkit, an ecosystem approach to local news is fundamentally about putting a place and its people at the center of our thinking. Without supporting people at the local level, local news can not support communities.

Ecosystem Builders are the people in your community who are designing new models for local news. They are innovative, connected deeply to communities, and hold many relationships across their ecosystem.

They are local leaders, journalists, organizers and entrepreneurs who focus on how to support the many players in their local news region, and how to foster collaboration between them. Ecosystem Builders occupy a new role in journalism, building up and supporting the connective tissue between organizations so they can work well together and help the whole system thrive.

They hold all different types of roles, responsibilities and strengths, but we have found they have a few things in common. Here are a few:

  • Ecosystem Builders are Connectors: One of their superpowers is that they effectively move between spaces and communities and are a conduit between groups.
  • Ecosystem Builders are Inherently Local: They are changing the field from the ground up, working with their communities from a perspective of building on existing assets, not trying to fill deficits or parachute in.
  • Ecosystem Builders Embody the Ethos of “Spreadability” Over Scale: Each ecosystem has its own distinct identity, but can learn from each other, often through Ecosystem Builders sharing lessons, advice, and mentorship with each other. (For example, with the Center for Cooperative Media’s Peer Learning and Collaboration Fund). This spreadability is often stronger and respects local needs more than traditional scaling models.
  • Ecosystem Builders Need Support That Doesn’t Always Exist in Traditional Programs: These builders are often great at what they do, but need support as they build a future for local journalism to help clear the hurdles to get there, including financial resources.

Meet Some Ecosystem Builders

Each builder profiled here is strengthening their ecosystem by connecting groups and people already reshaping what local news is and what journalism can do for communities.

Sheila Solomon, is helping to build the future of local news in Chicago

Sheila Solomon (Chicago) has worked for several decades in newspapers in and is now a senior consultant in Chicago for the Democracy Fund, and the strategic alliance liaison at Rivet, a “smart audio” creation and distribution company. She is a recipient of the Ida B. Wells Award, has taught journalism in universities and has served on numerous journalism-related boards.  


Sarah Gustavus is helping to build the future of local news in New Mexico

Sarah Gustavus (New Mexico) helps newsrooms collaborate on stories that reflect community needs. A reporter and producer with experience in Native American/Alaska Native communities, she is the Mountain West regional manager for the Solutions Journalism Network, and manages the New Mexico Local News Fund, to which the Democracy Fund contributes.


Melanie Sill is helping to build the future of local news in North Carolina

Alicia Bell (North Carolina) convenes workshops and public dialogues between newsrooms and the communities they cover to discuss their relationship and reimagine what local news can be. Her background is in community organizing, and she serves as Organizing Manager for News Voices: North Carolina, an organization supported in part by the Democracy Fund.

Melanie Sill is helping to build the future of local news in North Carolina

Melanie Sill (North Carolina) convenes newsrooms to help them share resources and find opportunities for collaboration. She is a veteran reporter and editor now working as a senior consultant on the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, to which the Democracy Fund contributes, and writes about innovations in the NC ecosystem through the NC Local newsletter.


Melanie Sill is helping to build the future of local news in Colorado

Nancy Watzman (Colorado) co-founded the Colorado Media Project, a broad coalition of Colorado citizens developing new business models and collaborative projects to strengthen local news and information in the state. She was editor of the Trust, Media & Democracy Medium page for the Knight Foundation on Trust, Media & Democracy.


Whether you’re a civic leader, a journalist, a funder, or everyday citizen, we hope these stories will help you join the movement to support democracy and participation through local media. If you have questions, ideas, or builders in your own ecosystems you think we should highlight, give us a shout at LocalNewsLab@democracyfund.org or on Twitter @TheLocalNewsLab.

Portions of this series were pulled from research and convenings of Ecosystem Builders led by Democracy Fund and consultant Tran Ha in 2017 and 2018. Stay tuned for more on this topic in 2020.


About the Author

Public Square Intern Kip Dooley authored a series of case studies on local news ecosystems

Kip Dooley was the Public Square Program’s Summer 2019 graduate intern. This project was originally completed for his MA in Journalism and Public Affairs at American University and was edited for the Local News Lab. You can learn more about Kip and his work here on his personal website.