Original reporting, informed dialogue, and sharp debate all contribute to a healthy democracy in local communities. But local news outlets are dwindling as audiences and advertisers shift to digital and mobile platforms, often with a smaller footprint — leaving media deserts in locations where coverage once flourished. At the same time, promising local journalism experiments are cropping up across the country. Foundations and for-profit players are investing in innovative outlets as well as tools and models that reduce reporting costs and support civic engagement around breaking news.
How can these promising “green shoots” be widely planted and fully cultivated? More broadly, how can we better understand and effectively address the dynamics that shape how people learn about local issues, and about ways to participate in the civic life of their communities?
We believe that using systems thinking to map the Local News & Participation system can bring new understanding to all who want to support active citizens and vibrant media as vital elements in a healthy democracy.
With input from local news analysts, editors, journalists, funders, and other stakeholders, the Democracy Fund has generated a map of this system — starting with the reality that the Internet is transforming the dynamics of local news and providing remarkable new opportunities for public engagement.
Version 1.0 of the map centers on the powerful economic shifts that have jolted the local news landscape, and on the innovative efforts to create and sustain digital approaches for reporting and public dialogue. The map is grounded in our assessment of the key factors that affect the health of democracy and the local public square.
The Local News & Participation systems map, which you can explore here, depicts the intersecting forces that shape the markets, missions, and practices of those providing news to inform participation and democratic decision-making in cities and states. It incorporates public attitudes and behaviors, journalism industry practices and challenges, economic forces, government policy, and more.
The multiple factors are organized in a series of subsystems or “loops.” Loops are characterized by the connections made between individual factors, and reflect how the increase (+) or decrease (-) in the significance of a given factor affects other related factors. Taken together in the context of their respective relationships, these factors yield a core story with positive and negative dimensions. The image below of the “engagement loop” is an example of a positive story within our broader analysis.
This loop illustrates that internet technologies have increased the ability of individuals to create and distribute their own content as well as share that of others, fueling new interest and opportunities for civic engagement. Internet technologies have also led to changed advertising and distribution models that are driving a decrease in the amount of coverage and quality of reporting available locally. In response to these trends, new entrants as well as incumbents are experimenting furiously with new models and only sometimes succeeding. All but the largest face steady erosion of their commercial viability given the weakness of the traditional advertising model.
The Local News & Participation systems map is ever-evolving and we hope it will be used and improved by a community of players active in this field.
The Local News & Participation systems map is an open-source tool that welcomes engagement by researchers, media companies, government and nonprofit agencies, funders, and others. Through user involvement, we expect this map to be made more accurate, complete, and practical as a vehicle for improving how the public gains access to information and participates in democracy.
Kumu — a Hawaiian term for “teacher” or “source of wisdom”— is a powerful visualization platform the Democracy Fund uses for mapping systems and better understanding relationships. We invite you to explore the map and its elements in Kumu. As you do, we hope you will tell us how to better describe and illuminate the dynamics of the Local News & Participation system. Throughout 2016, we will hold webinars and work sessions to involve new perspectives and strengthen this map.
Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your feedback or to sign up for continued email updates on this project.