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April 27, 2020

Collaborations, conversations, and COVID-19: How 5 local news ecosystems are responding resiliently

A thank-you sign to helpers in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood.
A thank-you sign to helpers in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood. Photo by Raed Mansour

The coronavirus pandemic has shaken much more than the ground beneath us: it has rocked every aspect of our society. This norm-shattering situation has shown us the value of a local news ecosystem in keeping our communities informed, healthy, and safe. A robust local news ecosystem means that communities have the flexible foundation they need to receive and share life saving information, connections, and support, pulling in collaborations from newsrooms, neighborhoods, and more.

Over the past five years, Democracy Fund has supported healthy local news ecosystems across the country through funding, shared learning, and community building. And the past few weeks have demonstrated to us that this unprecedented moment — a pandemic with reverberating impact, on top of an existing crisis in local news — is a true test of the ecosystem model. Will the networks and relationships and organizations that have been built over the past few years be up for the challenge? Will their focus on sustainability, diversity, equity, and engagement help local news connect directly with people in need?

So far, they have. It’s clear that the communities that have spent time listening, learning, building relationships, and testing new models for local news are full of journalists and organizations that have been able to respond, adapt, and center community needs. As local news outlets face an existential financial crisis, networks of foundations, journalists, news organizations, support organizations, and community media have stepped up to address the situation together. If the entire ecosystem aligns its work, then our communities can be resilient and persevere.

We’re proud to stand with the leaders and builders of these ecosystems. In uncertain moments, what we can be certain about is the relationships that exist and the potential not just to plug the gap, but to transform how we share local news and information for years to come. It’s impossible to round up all of the conversations and collaborations that are fueling these ecosystems. But here are some of the ways that local leaders in ecosystems are responding:

Downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico
Downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo by Ken Lund

New Mexico Fund Sets Up Emergency Relief Fund

Emergency support for necessities like food, schooling materials, and rent rapidly emerged from funders and mutual aid networks; these are urgent needs local journalists, furloughed or laid off, are facing as well. Led by Sarah Gustavus and Rashad Mahmood, the New Mexico Local News Fund was established at the Santa Fe Community Foundation in 2018 by the Thornburg Foundation and Democracy Fund. Gustavus and Mahmood have established relationships across the state’s journalism industry through focus groups, collaborative projects, and a fellowship program to support alumni of the University of New Mexico working in local newsrooms. In the face of coronavirus, the fund has created an emergency fund for New Mexico journalists to receive up to $750 for childcare, food, rent, remote equipment, or more. 

“We’re a culture where people need to work together. It goes all the way back to how we manage water in New Mexico,” Gustavus told the Local News Lab last year. Collaborations recognize the value each partner plays, she added: “Both small newsrooms and ethnic media are sometimes brought into collaborations because they have access to audiences that some mainstream or traditional outlets aren’t currently reaching. It’s important to me that we talk about how to ensure that those outlets have an equal voice in planning of projects.” This pandemic is hitting the people behind the newsrooms in unequal ways; this fund works to ensure local journalists of all backgrounds can respond to the communities’ information needs while addressing some of their own needs, too.

The Center for Cooperative Media spun up an initiative to support reporters covering COVID-19; this is their logo.
The logo of the Center for Cooperative Media’s initiative to support reporters covering COVID-19

New Jersey Center Cuts Through the Noise With Local Journalists

As people are dealing with COVID information overload, so are the people entrusted with sorting through and validating that information. That’s where the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, established in 2012 and funded in a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund, comes in. On a regular basis, the center helps coordinate resources and collaborations for New Jersey journalists. Now, in addition to a daily COVID-19 newsletter, associate director Joe Amditis is organizing weekly conference calls to build community among New Jersey journalists and share updates from their reporting. And that’s on top of director Stefanie Murray planning the annual — now virtual — Collaborative Journalism Summit to help guide and inspire collaborations industry-wide.

But who is left out of those conversations? Often, that means people who don’t share the same language or who have not been part of communities that led media coverage. With support from the New Jersey Local News Lab, the Center for Cooperative Media’s ethnic media coordinator Anthony Advincula announced a fellowship to amplify stories within ethnic and immigrant communities that “aims to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding in those communities. At the same time, it hopes to break down silos and inform those who may not have the language competency or nuanced cultural understanding about what’s happening in these communities by sharing the stories produced by fellows with larger and statewide news outlets.” This is journalism that needs to be surfaced to understand the pandemic’s echoes.

A view of a valley in Colorado
A view of Colorado. Photo by Hans Leatherman

Colorado Collaboratives Counter Misinformation

Collaborations don’t just pop up overnight. The Colorado Media Project, created with funding from the Gates Family Foundation, Democracy Fund, and others, supports newsrooms of all sizes and mediums in the state. Thanks to over a year of CMP building collaborations, resources, and connections, newsrooms were ready to partner up to cover COVID. The scaffolding that was created by CMP showed up in the quick establishment of a large collaboration as COVID settled in, on the heels of a misinformation-focused project planned for the election year with more than a dozen organizations.

Melissa Davis of the Gates Family Foundation, also interim director of CMP, is also working with partners to amplify how local news needs to be supported at this moment, as demonstrated in an op-ed published in the Colorado Sun. The Colorado Trust, another funder in the ecosystem, is commissioning journalists to report on local health inequity during the pandemic, like grocery store workers’ safety and the threat to incarcerated people, which can then be shared in other local outlets. These collaborations are rooted as potential solutions in the crisis Colorado’s local news ecosystem has faced; they’re coalescing partners in new and trust-based ways to last through the crisis we are all facing.

A mural of people in Asheville, North Carolina
A mural of people in Asheville, North Carolina. Photo by Mike Carrick

North Carolina Reaches Residents in New Ways

Supporting disaster-relief reporting is not new in this state — North Carolina Local News Lab Fund coordinator Lizzy Hazeltine has called attention to funding collaborations between community organizations and media in 2019 to report on the Hurricane Florence aftermath and recovery. In this new disaster, grantees of the Fund have pivoted to collaborate around coronavirus coverage, as rounded up by the NC Local newsletter: Spanish-language news nonprofit Enlace Latino NC is working with the 155-year-old newspaper the Raleigh News & Observer about translations and reporting for Spanish speakers; NC Health News has partnered with public radio station WUNC to share regular health news; and EducationNC is using text messaging to share news with educators and students. And in the middle of a pandemic, a new nonprofit local reporting outlet, AVL Watchdog, launched in Asheville, with its first piece republished in six other local outlets, noting: “Here’s looking to the beginning of a great relationship.”

The North Carolina Local News Lab Fund was established by a group of local and national funders including Democracy Fund in 2017 to support local news and information in the state. Other partnerships have emerged statewide, like the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a network supported by the Knight Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network, which recently hosted its first virtual town hall with more than 40 participants. But not all residents have internet access, so the collaborative and Free Press are organizing a phone tree where residents are asked to call five people they know locally who can’t or won’t participate in online calls and to discuss what information they are looking for. Working to include all community members in coverage conversations helps ensure that all residents will be able to receive the information they need.

Photo of a city of Chicago information kiosk urging residents to "Stay Home, Stay Safe" by Raed Mansour
Photo of a city of Chicago information kiosk urging residents to “Stay Home, Stay Safe” by Raed Mansour

Chicago Funders Team Up to Provide Support

Chicago has been called “America’s news lab” for its experimental approach across a host of news outlets and supporting organizations. The city is home to two longtime newspapers, a fleet of news and information startups from a range of founders, and a robust local funder community dedicated to supporting media. These collaborations have meant that funders could spin up quick resources for the ecosystem. The McCormick Foundation, in partnership with five other Chicago-centric foundations, recently announced a special COVID-19 response fund to support publicly accessible journalism from both for-profit and nonprofit outlets with up to $10,000. 

The journalists and community members leading the experiments have been inspiring changes in journalism industry-wide, and continue to do so during the pandemic. City Bureau, a nonprofit civic journalism lab, organized a community Zoom call where people can present on their superpowers (and receive a stipend, like they would for documenting a local government meeting) while tracking the impact of public meetings’ virtual pivot. The Chicago Reader commissioned artists to develop a fundraising coloring book, splitting the proceeds as a fundraiser for the outlet and the creators. And ALAANA media in the city, like the Chicago Crusader, the Chicago Defender, and Bronzecomm, and reporters from WBEZ and the Chicago Tribune are meeting the information needs they’re seeing in their own families and neighborhoods, as Field Foundation program officer Lolly Bowean chronicled

Follow Along

Each creative approach, each experiment to do something different and reach for sustainability, each community member who is able to understand and apply the information validated and shared by news organizations helps strengthen the information shared and needs addressed across the ecosystem. And that helps strengthen all of us.

If we are to successfully help local journalism not only survive, but transform in a way that will create systems level impact and longer term transformation, we must understand how these networks have successfully responded to this moment. We can learn how we can continue to create the infrastructure and scaffolding that will help local news and information be resilient for years to come.

Responses to COVID-19 and lessons to be learned are constantly changing. Email us at localnewslab@democracyfund.org if there are other efforts you think we should highlight in the future. If you want to support these efforts or focus on your own state, get started: