A new tool to measure the health of local news ecosystems – Knight Foundation

A new tool to measure the health of local news ecosystems

Access to accurate, fact-based news and information is critical for the well-being of individuals, communities and local government. As local news outlets face business challenges, philanthropy is helping fill gaps by supporting organizations who provide vital local information. 

While tactics for providing this support may vary, many local news funders struggle to assess whether that community’s information environment is actually becoming healthier.

In response, the Google News Initiative, Democracy Fund and Knight Foundation commissioned Impact Architects to develop a framework and playbook to help communities assess the health of their local news ecosystems. 

The new report “Healthy Local News & Information Ecosystems: A Diagnostic Framework,” presents an assessment approach tested and refined across nine U.S. communities of various sizes. Accompanying the report is a playbook and toolkit designed as a tool to help funders and other community organizations evaluate strengths and opportunities in their locale. 

While each local market presented unique conditions and challenges, this timely study found some common themes across communities: 

  • Communities with greater racial and ethnic diversity tended to have lower trust in journalism, suggesting stronger relationships among legacy media and communities of color are of crucial importance.
  • Increasing access to news through collaboration and strong ecosystem backbone institutions can lead to higher trust in journalism, which in turn can lead to more community support for local news organizations. 
  • Greater news access can have a positive impact on voter turnout and resident satisfaction with their community. 

Building on extensive existing research and incorporating perspectives from industry stakeholders, this project moves beyond documenting the presence or absence of news organizations (i.e., “news deserts”) to include a more holistic look at dimensions such as business models and staff composition. It includes easy ways to use existing, publicly available data to measure community members’ relationships with journalists. Ultimately, the playbook is designed as a “plug and play” solution to evaluate 35 indicators across three interconnected categories: news and information providers, community information needs, and the relationship between newsrooms and the community. 

This new report includes case studies from the nine U.S. communities where Impact Architects applied the framework: Boulder County, Colo.; Charlotte, N. C.; Chicago; Detroit; Macon-Bibb County, Ga; New Mexico; Oakland, Calif.; Philadelphia; Youngstown, Ohio.

Insights from this effort reinforce the central role local news plays in the civic health of communities. They also show how local funders can use this framework to more effectively direct critical support for local news to areas of greatest potential impact. As new community initiatives are implemented, the framework can also be used over time to observe and assess progress toward healthier communities. 

We look forward to seeing how funders, newsrooms and others use this framework to better understand and track the state of the local news ecosystem in their own communities.

Photo (top) by Matt Donders on Unsplash

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