Learning From North Carolina

Fiona Morgan, In Consultation With Melanie Sill
December 5, 2017

Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program defines a local news ecosystem as the network of institutions, collaborations, and people that local communities rely on for news, information, and engagement. Healthy news ecosystems are diverse, interconnected, sustainable, and deeply engaged with their communities. When an ecosystem is healthy, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Looking at local news and information through this ecosystem lens raises new, compelling questions. For example, instead of asking how do we save traditional models of local news, we ask about ways of strengthening people’s access to information that is central to a healthy democracy. Instead of asking about the health of any one organization, we examine the robustness of the relationships between them. Instead of asking how we can get people to pay for news, we ask what might be a range of models to support news as a service to communities.

To that end, we commissioned a series of reports from regions around the country to better understand the complex forces shaping local news ecosystems from North Carolina to New Mexico. In this report, the authors have sought to ask these questions, and map out the strengths and challenges facing North Carolina as the landscape of local news continues to shift due to economic and technological change. This report, researched and written by Fiona Morgan, with Melanie Sill contributing significant insights and feedback, seeks to map out key contours of the news ecosystem in North Carolina. Although the report’s initial purpose was to inform our investments in local news, we are making its findings available to the public. We do so to help serve the field and welcome further feedback that will inevitably add new layers and richness to our understanding of the field.

The report is based on interviews with more than two dozen people from different sectors and geographic areas in North Carolina that took place in the spring of 2017. It also pulls from previous research by Morgan and by Democracy Fund Senior Fellow Geneva Overholser. Morgan discusses journalistic and financial challenges facing local news in North Carolina and identifies bright spots in the ecosystem — for example, audience engagement initiatives, promising business models, and emerging collaborations. Her report concludes with 10 suggestions for developing a more robust ecosystem in North Carolina, ranging from convening conversations to forming partnerships to tackling concrete problems by building practical solutions.

Democracy Fund is grateful for the thoughtful reporting and analysis by Morgan and Sill, who are well-connected journalists and students of media in the state. (see “About the Author”). The report has also profited from the insights of many people in and out of North Carolina, including Overholser, whose earlier interviews with North Carolina journalists and publishers provided a foundation, and Dr. Phil Napoli of Duke University, a grantee of Democracy Fund who is mapping the health of media ecosystems across the country. We are also grateful for the work of Penelope (Penny) Muse Abernathy who has been a stalwart advocate for local news and a chronicler of its challenges in North Carolina and across the United States.

This report presents an overview of North Carolina’s local news and information ecosystem but does not attempt to catalogue or cover every part of it. We welcome feedback, further information, and questions about North Carolina’s local news and information ecosystem, our ecosystem approach to supporting local news, and Democracy Fund’s Public Square program to

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