Like many industries, local news was upended by the internet revolution.

Newspapers, TV and radio stations that once provided people with vital, accurate information on local affairs, held the powerful to account and fostered a sense of community have been vastly diminished or have closed altogether, due to overzealous profit-seeking, the loss of print advertising and the fracturing of public attention. Researchers have coined terms like “news deserts” and “media deserts” to describe the thousands of communities left with little to no coverage of local affairs, and have launched long-term studies to quantify the effects on civic health. Even in urban areas where news outlets still abound (so-called “news jungles”), they often fail to provide adequate and fair coverage to wide sections of the city, particularly non-white and working class neighborhoods.

Journalists, entrepreneurs and philanthropists have been hard at work on solutions, but it’s clear that no one person or organization will revitalize local news. That’s why the Democracy Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based philanthropic organization, is pursuing a system-wide strategy for revitalizing local news called “news and information ecosystems.”

“The key concept in ecosystems is that everything is in relationship to everything else,” writes Nancy Watzman, a senior consultant for the Democracy Fund. Borne of the organization’s wider focus on systems thinking, news ecosystems presents a framework to design meaningful, lasting solutions to the complex problems facing local news.

This report focuses on Democracy Fund consultants working in three regions, Chicago, North Carolina and New Mexico, drawing on interviews with them and with key partners to illustrate how the ecosystems framework is sparking insights and innovation in local news.

Sheila Solomon 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.  

Read about Sheila’s work in Chicago

Sarah Gustavus is a reporter and producer with extensive experience reporting on issues in both rural and 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.

Read about Sarah’s work in New Mexico

Alicia Bell is Organizing Manager for News Voices: North Carolina, an organization supported in part by the Democracy Fund. With a background in community organizing, she convenes workshops and public dialogues between newsrooms and the communities they cover to discuss their relationship and reimagine the future of local news.

Read about Alicia’s work in North Carolina

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The case studies are complemented by insights into the history of U.S. news media by two veteran reporters and journalists now working as senior consultants for the Democracy Fund.

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Melanie Sill is a news leader and change-maker now working as a senior consultant on the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. She writes about innovations in the North Carolina news ecosystem at NC Local.

Nancy Watzman is a longtime reporter and editor now heading up the Colorado Media Project, a broad coalition of Colorado citizens who are concerned about the future of local news and information in the state. She is editor of the Trust, Media & Democracy Medium page for the Knight Foundation on Trust, Media & Democracy.

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About the Author

Kip Dooley is a graduate intern for the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. This project was completed for his Master’s in Journalism and Public Affairs at American University. You can learn more about Kip and his work here on his personal website.