Solution Set: Measuring impact in a news ecosystem

By Shawn Mooring

June 30, 2022

Researchers have been studying media ecosystems for decades, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the idea of news ecosystems became more popularized. By 2012, there were more than 50 academic citations in Google Scholar referencing news ecosystems, according to a study

One of the 2010 studies that kicked off significant interest in news ecosystems was a Pew Research Center report examining local news in Baltimore. The report set out to answer these questions: 

  • Who really reports the news that most people get about their communities? What role do new media, blogs and specialty news sites now play?
  • How, in other words, does the modern news “ecosystem” of a large American city work? And if newspapers were to die — to the extent that we can infer from the current landscape — what would that imply for what citizens would know and not know about where they live?

Much has changed in the past 12 years. We access information in notably different ways, through social media and on our smartphones, and there have been significant changes to news ecosystems in cities like Baltimore. (There will be more on what’s going on in Baltimore in the next issue!) Still, researchers, funders, and practitioners are still grappling with many of the same key questions in 2022. 

At The Lenfest Institute, much of our work focuses on understanding and supporting the local news ecosystem in Philadelphia, our hometown. Over the past year, I’ve led an effort to develop a new set of metrics to track our work in Philadelphia.

These measures of success focus on three areas: individual journalists, media organizations, and the ecosystem as a whole. This week in Solution Set, I outlined the specific metrics, how we’re tracking them, and how we’re using them to inform our strategy. I’ve also created a spreadsheet with the metrics, which you can see here. 

While this work is focused specifically on Philadelphia, we hope the insights we learn will be relevant for other local news ecosystems around the United States and beyond. We’ve also included some additional resources and studies on news ecosystems. 

We’ll be sure to continue to share what we’re learning in the months ahead, and please don’t hesitate to reach out directly with any questions or feedback. 

How The Lenfest Institute is measuring impact in the Philadelphia Media Ecosystem

The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and our partners in the Philadelphia news ecosystem share a common goal — a diverse, thriving news media marketplace. Over the past year, we’ve developed a series of metrics we’re measuring to track success, hold ourselves accountable, and share what we’re learning with our partners and the broader community. 

Through direct investment and programming, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism supports the evolution of a sustainable local news and information ecosystem for a more transparent, connected, and equitable Philadelphia. The aim is to link residents to their neighbors, to news organizations, and to other information resources that allow them to flourish.

The Institute is taking a long view of this work, recognizing that it will take time, collective effort, and collaboration to reach our goals. Representation and inclusion are critical components of positive business outcomes for publishers, which is why the Institute is working to define different pathways to sustainability while also ensuring a broad diversity of voices in leadership at media organizations that reflect the communities they’re serving. 

The Institute’s work supporting an interconnected ecosystem of Philadelphia’s news and information providers serves as a catalyst for achieving these goals and drives our three-tiered investment approach, which focuses on: 

  • Individuals, with an emphasis on journalists, entrepreneurs, and media makers of color
  • Organizations, including legacy, community-based, and startup publishers 
  • Ecosystem projects and resources that serve the news ecosystem as a whole

As we steward these investments, we’re monitoring our progress to better understand their efficacy and to share what we learn. The Institute engaged Jessica Clark, founder & executive director of Dot Connector Studio, to engage in an exploratory process, which included a review of previous efforts to measure and track news ecosystems, in order to understand best practices and determine the best set of metrics to measure our progress. 

We also conducted an extensive literature review and interviewed more than 20 media funders, practitioners, and researchers from organizations including: the Independence Public Media Foundation, Democracy Fund, Outlier Media, the Local Media Association, Tiny News Collective, LION Publishers, Borealis Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, Listening Post Collective, and many others.

The following metrics are being collected and monitored through grant and program applications, grantee reports, and opportunities for peer learning. The data collected will continue to inform the implementation of the Institute’s programming and our understanding of its effectiveness for the news ecosystem more broadly. If you want to dig deeper into the metrics and how we’re tracking them, please check out this spreadsheet, which includes the specific metrics, how we’re collecting them, potential challenges, and more. You will see that in some sections the metrics overlap as each of the categories are interconnected. 

Reach out if you’d like us to walk you through the metrics, and if you’re a funder supporting ecosystem work, please feel free to make a copy and adapt for your own use. 

Click to read more about the specific metrics we’re tracking and our activities across the three tiers. 

Want to know more? 

Northwestern’s Medill School this week published its annual State of Local News report, which found that more than one-fifth of Americans now live in news deserts. The United States has lost more than 2,500 newspapers since 2005, including 360 that have closed between late 2019 and May 2022. Most are weekly papers. 

While there has been growth in the number of digital-only news sites over the past few years, the report found that most communities that lose a newspaper do not get a replacement. The focus on news ecosystems can help identify collective strategies to help fill the gaps. 

• Democracy Fund has published a terrific, detailed local news ecosystem assessment guide written by researcher Fiona Morgan. The toolkit is aimed at funders, but it’s a smart overview and a good orientation for those looking to learn more.  

• The Democracy Fund report also includes a thorough list of background reading and case studies in communities across the country — from New Jersey to New Mexico — if you want to expand your reading on local news ecosystems and how they’re being funded and working in practice. 

• There’s been some criticism of the term news ecosystem, and in 2021 CJR interviewed media scholar Anthony Nadler about his view on the limitations of the metaphor. He said the focus on ecosystems promotes a “Darwinian struggle” of individual actors competing against one another for limited resources. “Modes of thinking that are more about centralized planning or collective effort—what kind of policies or ground rules we need to set, or what we need to have a public conversation about healthy communities—that kind of thinking just doesn’t jibe as well with the ecosystem metaphor,” he said.

Anything to add?

As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions, comments, or suggestions for future coverage. Please email Joseph Lichterman at [email protected].

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