Mapping to Learn: Applying a Systems Lens to Local Journalism

March 28, 2016

This week we released a visualization and accompanying narrative that seeks to represent the dynamics facing local news institutions and levels of participation of the public in civic affairs.

Original reporting, informed dialogue, and rigorously argued differences of opinion all support engagement in our democratic processes in communities across the United States. Over the past decade, however, local news outlets have struggled. Audiences and advertisers have gravitated to digital and mobile platforms — and the economics of local news has declined. We are being left with media deserts in locations where coverage once flourished.

At the same time, promising local journalism experiments have cropped up across the country. Foundations and venture capitalists are investing not only in individual outlets, but in tools and models that can cut reporting costs and support civic engagement around breaking topics. How can such promising innovations be seeded widely and cultivated fully? These are the issues that the Democracy Fund’s Engagement Program has been grappling with.

Our Journey

Over the past year, we have consulted dozens of journalists and scholars of media and communications in an ambitious effort to create a map that reveals the many dimensions of local journalism’s disruption.

This process flows from the foundation’s larger commitment to understanding democracy as a complex system. At the core of our process is an extensive process of analysis and graphical mapping of the dynamics facing this space. As Democracy Fund President Joe Goldman explains “a systems map describes the dynamic patterns (or feedback loops) that occur in a system, whether they are vicious or virtuous cycles of behavior and reaction.” It is not, as Joe writes “a network map that describes how different individuals or organizations are connected to one another.”

The process of identifying and vetting such loops has been both long and profoundly iterative. Participants in the initial workshop held in March 2014 sketched some 43 loops representing different dynamics surrounding the failure and success of local news outlets to adequately inform and connect with their communities. Over a series of internal and one-on-one meetings, the Engagement team — Program Associate Paul Waters, Graduate Research Fellow Jessica Mahone, myself, and a dedicated set of fellows and consultants — winnowed the map down to tell a “core story” about key factors and connections.

Like panning for gold, these multiple conversations allowed the team to sift through many different layers of the problem to identify valuable elements. The result is not a picture of the optimal local news environment that we might want, or the debatably better environment we might have once had. Instead, it’s a multi-dimensional model of the intersecting forces that shape the markets, missions, and practices of outlets seeking to provide coverage that can help to drive democratic decisionmaking by both audiences and policymakers around the country.

Where We Are

The current map, which comprises 17 loops, hones in on the powerfully disruptive economic shifts that have unsettled legacy journalism outlets, and the hopeful but still nascent creative efforts to build sustainable digital tools and platforms for reporting and civic dialogue. The map identifies Internet adoption and evolution as the key “input factor” disrupting this system, and pinpoints three key factors central to a healthy local information ecosystem:

  • The shift in audience attention;
  • The relevance, quality, and quantity of state and local journalism; and
  • The engagement of the public in civic affairs.

Several related loops hone in on economic dynamics. Perhaps the most important is the decay in income from advertising as a result of news outlets no longer able to obtain the same rates or deliver the same audience reach they once did. In addition, large digital platforms are more able to capture significant portions of the remaining advertising revenue with increasingly sophisticated targeting technologies. The result these dynamics is that membership and philanthropic support for small to mid-sized news projects is increasingly important as is the role government dollars play in maintaining public broadcasting.

Other factors are at work, however, including the rise of user-generated content, the strength of connections between newsrooms and community members, and the fate of journalism skills in an era of mass newspaper layoffs. The map raises questions such as, can audiences trust reporters to recognize and represent their interests, and uncover corruption without sliding into sensationalism? Will outlets with small slices of the public increase hyper partisanship with narrowly targeted content aimed at reinforcing viewpoints rather than informing?

The map also recognizes the importance of policy decisions around online access and how they have fostered the growth of the Internet over recent decades. All of these dynamics and others are captured in this system map, and each loop is bolstered with research, case studies and both supporting and countervailing evidence.

Overall, we have to recognize that the local public square, which has for decades been sustained by a small number of newspapers, television and radio stations, is in turmoil and though it isn’t clear what will replace what was for decades a stable equilibrium it is very clear that change will be a constant over the upcoming decade.

Looking to the future

Like the dynamics it captures, the map is not static. It is a work in progress, designed to serve as tool for discussion and strategy not just within the foundation, but across the field. With this in mind, the Engagement Program worked with the American Press Institute to convene another room full of news experts, editors and reporters this past October. Many had seen the map more than once in its various iterations; others were “map newbies.” We led the room through each loop—probing for points of confusion or competing interpretations of various factors and connections. For us this was just the first step towards more engagement with communities of experts seeking to better inform and engage the public at the local level in our democracy. Ultimately, we hope this contributes to a stronger shared understanding of the field.

How can you assist?

We recognize that as a relatively small organization we will gain a better understanding of the field by soliciting input from others. We also realize that this is a quickly shifting field and we intend to stay in learning mode as the map evolves. This prompts us to continue to engage with the widest range of people working in the realm of local news and participation: What else does the Democracy Fund need to know or understand to better illuminate the dynamics of local news ecosystems?

If your work relates to local news and participation, we welcome and encourage you to take some time to explore the map and dig into the definitions of the loops, factors, and connections. Help us improve its breadth and accuracy.

Please send us your ideas and feedback by emailing


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