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Mapping the local news ecosystem — with scale but detail

“In addition to seeing from 30,000 feet, we also need to be able to zoom in and know a journalism landscape as it exists from the vantage of those who live there.”

2019 will see continued, if not increased interest in understanding the local journalism landscape from a bird’s-eye view. Though a relatively new subfield, news ecosystem mapping projects have proliferated, and will continue to do so, as they also become more sophisticated in their methodology and presentation.

The major disruptions to journalism have affected newsrooms at all geographic levels — local, national, and international. And while national newsrooms have largely recovered their footing, the new local journalism business model has taken longer to emerge. Couple that with renewed concern, after the 2016 presidential election, that local news deficits are having more direct impacts on democracy than perhaps was earlier thought, and the urgent need for a comprehensive accounting of the local journalism landscape becomes clear.

The disruption of journalism’s business model, along with the extraordinary political communication environment, have created a deep craving on the part of practitioners, audiences, funders, and academics to understand the journalism landscape from 30,000 feet. But in addition to seeing from 30,000 feet, we also need to be able to zoom in and know a landscape as it exists from the vantage of those who live there — understanding what kind of content is being produced, and how news flows.

News ecosystem mapping is an effort to understand who provides news and how it flows through a community (geographic or otherwise). When not geographically focused, ecosystem mapping looks at a topic, like the evolution of the Trayvon Martin story, or at the influence of partisan media, as in a postmortem of US presidential election coverage. But most ecosystem studies take a geographic focus, usually because we want to understand not only who the news and information providers are, but also where they are missing.

New digital tools are being brought to bear on this problem as those who study journalism team up with data scientists (or become data scientists themselves). With evermore sophisticated methods it will be possible to tackle classic research problems such as depth versus scale, and large-scale content analysis. Results will be able to be presented on user-friendly websites that enable audiences to quickly find local news producers near them, or funders to easily identify news deserts in need of watering.

The need for a scaled but detailed understanding of the local journalism landscape will fuel continued interest in news ecosystem mapping projects going forward, and the eventual fulfillment of this need will bring us that much closer to solving the contemporary journalism crisis.

Sarah Stonbely is the research director at the Center for Cooperative Media.

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