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January 19, 2022

Meet the Ecosystem Builders: A unique group of leaders transforming local news

A screenshot of a Zoom call with Ecosystem Builders, consultants, and Democracy Fund associates; the group of 12 on this call are all smiling at the camera with various backgrounds and positioning.
A group picture from the Ecosystem Builders’ October community call

By Christine Schmidt and Teresa Gorman, Ecosystem News

In 2020, two dozen Atlanta journalists gathered to take a hard look at the state of local media in Atlanta. A lack of diversity and commitment to community meant that many newsrooms weren’t responsive to the people they were supposed to serve. And on top of that, cuts and downsizing meant that there were fewer and fewer reporters to cover important things like local elections and education policy. 

A group of those journalists — Max Blau, Floyd Hall, Mike Jordan, Mariann Martin, Sonam Vashi, and Kamille Whittaker — decided to take action. They came together that year to establish Canopy Atlanta, a nonprofit community news project that they hoped would help transform news in the city. They reached out to community members and dozens of journalists and created a community advisory board to build an organization that brings together experienced journalists and Atlantans from communities overlooked by local media. Now, they produce online and print news for the community, and their participatory journalism model allows residents to surface the issues that matter to them most. 

Canopy Atlanta’s cofounders are people we call “Ecosystem Builders.” At Democracy Fund, we’ve been bringing people like them together since 2017 to share ideas and build relationships. Ecosystem Builders include people in all kinds of roles, who are doing the work in local news ecosystems: weaving networks together, rooting efforts in local needs, and trying new things to help their communities get what they need. 

They are developing new models of local news, from CoastAlaska’s collaborative back-end public radio station support to Scalawag’s work in the South shifting narratives in solidarity with oppressed communities. We know this transformative work is happening in dozens of communities nationwide, but we’ve heard from these Ecosystem Builders that when you’re deep in it, it’s easy to feel isolated and disconnected. And as a national funder, we knew from the day we started funding local news ecosystems that it was crucial to build relationships with local people in their communities — and to back them up in multiple ways. This led us to supporting Ecosystem Builders in the first place.

[Read more about innovative approaches to local news and why it matters: Why I’m hopeful about local news in 2021

Initially we decided to bring this group together with a pretty basic goal: to help them feel less alone. We also wanted to know what support, beyond grants, these leaders needed (note: not all Builders are Democracy Fund grantees). We found the Builders through recommendations from partners, our existing relationships, highlights of their work from others in the field, and cold emails to people we hadn’t interacted with before. We added to the group over the years by trusting the recommendations of Builders and getting to know their networks. We have supported participants with a mix of stipends, trainings, coaching, in-person meetings (when you could do that sort of thing), and a lot of shared meals. In 2021, we held monthly community calls that offered deep dives on topics from leadership skills to fundraising strategies, paired with access to a one-on-one coach to troubleshoot organizational challenges.

We’ve been lucky to learn so many things from these leaders and the process of identifying them over the years. A few highlights include:

Ecosystem Builders are inherently local and sparking innovation.

They are people who are intimately familiar with their local news ecosystem, which is essential for journalism that truly reflects the community interests and addresses information needs. They are the “green shoots” of news ecosystems, willing to experiment in new projects or help introduce collaboration and new ways of working to legacy organizations.

Their work doesn’t always scale in conventional ways.

Especially as Builders are rooted in their local communities, they don’t necessarily always have a desire to bring their models to new places via a traditional scaling model. While they want people to learn and adapt their lessons for their own places, these Ecosystem Builders are rethinking scale, and embracing the tactic of spreading their ideas in new ways through community, mentorship, and more. 

Successful collaboration requires deep connections.

Doing this relationship-based transformation work takes time, which means funding this work takes time, too. As funders, we should commit to supporting leaders like Ecosystem Builders for longer than a grant cycle and ensure that we aren’t taking too much of that time with grant requirements and requests so they can focus on the work at hand. 

17 people stand in a row, with some staggered in front and back, smiling at the camera. They're standing in front of an orange wall with white dots and commas in a linear pattern, on a gray floor.
Builders at an early convening in 2017 (when those things could happen in person!)

Over time, this group formed a beloved community of practice and we have learned much from their collective dialogue. Connections and informal collaborations popped up, and most importantly, participants had more people to turn to as they built healthy news ecosystems across the country. An unplanned but huge benefit also came to us at Democracy Fund: takeaways from the Ecosystem Builders and our learnings from them helped us shape our grantmaking strategy. Conversations from the group helped lead to the creation of the Center for Cooperative Media’s Peer Learning and Collaboration Fund which paid for travel and time to support journalists learning from each other one-on-one, the birth of the New Mexico Local News Fund which now serves as a hub for the state’s local news ecosystem through programming such as the local revenue initiative and local student fellowship, and more.  

In recognition of the Builders’ work, we are delighted to share a list of those who have been part of our group over the years. Interested in learning more about the Builder community or how you can support it? Reach out to us at cschmidt@democracyfund.org and tgorman@democracyfund.org, learn more about our approach to local news ecosystems here, and sign up for the Local Fix newsletter to stay tuned for more lessons from the Builders. 

Ecosystem Builders, 2017-2021

We originally built this community with the support of consultant Tran Ha and more recently partnered with Piece by Piece Strategies’ Jessica Pierce and Bryan Perlmutter to provide operations coaching and training. We’re grateful for their support and guidance over the years!


Mollie Kabler
CoastAlaska executive director
Sitka, Alaska
Learn more: Q&A: Mollie Kabler on how collaboration helps Alaska public media thrive 

Rashad Mahmood + Sarah Gustavus Lim
New Mexico Local News Fund director + recent co-director
Albuquerque, N.M. and Seattle, Wash.
Learn more: From an idea to a thriving local news ecosystem

Jennifer Pemberton
KTOO managing editor
Juneau, Alaska
Learn more: “I bring stories from the community into the KTOO newsroom so that all of our reporting matters” 

Katherine Rowlands
Bay City News Foundation executive director
Berkeley, Calif.
Learn more: How a former intern built a dynamic regional newsroom against the odds of an ailing industry 

Alexis Terrazas
El Tecolote editor-in-chief
Daly City, Calif.
Learn more: “From the beginning, El Tecolote has been a community effort, powered by donations and a staff of dedicated volunteers. Today it’s a biweekly publication with a circulation of 10,000, and is the longest running Spanish/English bilingual newspaper in California.” 


Candice Fortman
Outlier Media executive director
Detroit, Mich.
Learn more: The community as assignment editor: a conversation with Detroit’s Outlier Media 

Diamond Hardiman
Free Press News Voices and Media 2070
Chicago, Ill.
Learn more: Black voices will forge the future of journalism + Latinx voices group calls us to dream a bigger future for local news 

Darryl Holliday, Harry Backlund, Bettina Chang, Andrea Hart
City Bureau cofounders
Chicago, Ill.
Learn more: Maslow’s Pyramid, Fake News and the Future of Journalism

Mukhtar Ibrahim
Sahan Journal executive director
St. Paul, Minn.
Learn more: How Sahan Journal built community support to grow revenue by 50% in one year 

Lila Mills
Neighborhood Connections associate director, program home of Cleveland Documenters
Cleveland, Ohio
Learn more: “Cleveland Documenters recruits, trains and pays Greater Clevelanders to document official committee meetings of the Cuyahoga County and City of Cleveland governments and contribute to a communal pool of public knowledge.” 

Dr. Cirien Saadeh
The UpTake executive director
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.
Learn more: “How do we develop sustainable journalism platforms and spaces in historically-marginalized communities and how do we create journalism methodologies which build community power and resilience?”

Anna Simonton
The Appeal editor
Minneapolis, Minn.
Learn more: New report charts path for “Movement Journalism” in the South 


Trupania Bonner
Crescent City Media Group founder
New Orleans, La.
Learn more: “Crescent City Media Group is a community engagement and media production agency serving at the intersect of public interest and policy advocacy in communities of color across the state of Louisiana.” 

Clarissa Brooks
Just Media program director and freelance writer
Atlanta, Ga.
Learn more: Why Just Media? 

Cierra Hinton
Scalawag executive director-publisher
Durham, N.C.
Learn more: Women in Journalism: Q&A with Cierra Hinton  

DaLyah Jones
Freelance journalist and community engagement consultant
Austin, Texas
Learn more: “My work is aimed at providing journalism to historically overlooked communities in rural Texas, especially in the Eastern region of the state.”

Keri Mitchell
Dallas Free Press executive director
Dallas, Texas
Learn more: “Our nonprofit journalism amplifies voices in disinvested Dallas neighborhoods and explores solutions to our city’s systemic inequities.”

Sarah Sloan
Shoresides/Working Narratives producer
Morehead City, N.C.
Learn more: Narrative Shift & Local Journalism 

Sonam Vashi
Canopy Atlanta cofounder
Atlanta, Ga.
Learn more: In “the capital of income inequality,” Canopy Atlanta wants to equalize how journalism is produced 


AmyJo Brown 
Investigative reporter, editor, and instructor 
Pittsburgh, Pa.
Learn more: “That need to dig, to get the story right — to ask the right questions of the right sources, to ensure that not just the details but also the overall context rings true — has continued to be the throughline in my work.”

Courtney Hurtt
Institute for Nonprofit News chief of growth; former WDET associate director, product strategy & operations
Pittsburgh, Pa.
Learn more: Courtney Hurtt is building a better future for nonprofit newsrooms via NewsMatch. Here’s how

Chris Faraone + John Loftus
Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism editorial director + operations director
Boston, Mass.
Learn more: Grassroots organizing key to passing journalism commission law

Stefanie Murray, Joe Amditis, Cassandra Etienne, and Sarah Stonbely
Center for Cooperative Media
New Jersey
Learn more: Peer Learning + Collaboration grantees help to fill in Newark’s information gaps