Three learnings from place-based ecosystem funding

By Lizzy Hazeltine

This commentary is crossposted from the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund’s site. Hazeltine leads the fund and Press Forward North Carolina.

When I was in Miami for Knight Media Forum 2024 to announce our role leading Press Forward North Carolina alongside Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, I celebrated the opportunity to share what’s happening in North Carolina and hear updates from other ecosystem leaders. When asked about the growth and collaboration in North Carolina and what’s ahead, my answer was consistent: when we commit to North Carolina’s people and local communities, our definition of success – and how we can tackle the next chapter together – is clear.  

Hotel ballrooms, like the venue for this year’s Knight Media Forum, aren’t known for their sense of place. Despite this, we focused on how important a place-based approach is for effective local news and information funding. Here are three ways establishing a sense of place can reinforce a vision of success for funders and leaders in newsrooms and help us translate it into community impact – even in turbulent times.   

  1. Local is the place where national trends hit home, for good or ill.   

Across the country, communities experience national issues – from voting rights to government transparency – in unique, localized ways. Local reporting tells the nuanced, detailed stories of what happens in our communities and local governments. But far too often, national-level narratives crowd out closer-to-home stories, contributing to lower civic engagement and voting rates.

More local stories about civic life and wider, deeper distribution of these stories help us – as journalists, voters, public health experts, funders, and more – better understand what’s happening in our communities and make more informed decisions. An example here in North Carolina is the approach WHQR takes in its Citizen’s Agenda: a project dedicated to shaping elections around the needs of voters instead of the desires of candidates, pundits, and journalists. It’s a prime example of the community cohesion we can build when trusted, community-centered local organizations report on national topics.

  1. Local is where dollars drive progress.

The economics of the news crisis show up in many ways: waves of newsroom closures, layoffs, and increased competition for grant and ad dollars. The scale of these problems extends beyond the market failure of commercial news into daunting levels of injured trust in news and growing news avoidance.  

The scale of these systems-level problems shouldn’t make us balk but instead serve as a reason to invest in the local news organizations and trusted messengers who are carving out their own pieces of the systems to focus on. That local focus is driving deep insight into culture, revenue, reach, and the value of being grounded in place — insights that remain a compelling value proposition for small and medium-sized businesses. And taken at the ecosystem level, there’s a portfolio of adaptable techniques and a network of mutual support for funders and field leaders. That’s a major return on grantmaking. 

When national funders support local news and community organizations, local leaders have the capacity and resources to experiment, expand diversified revenue models, and generate more local support. This builds on opportunities that are already emerging. For example, we’re seeing heartening signs of more interest in North Carolina local media from ad buyers, as reported in the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media’s 2024 Ad Buyer Report.  

More funding to local news and community organizations can fuel this positive feedback loop. Press Forward, and our work as the home of Press Forward NC, promises catalytic funding and clear on-ramps for funders to leverage our dollars together. This puts more dollars into organizations that fill reporting gaps, expand distribution, and ensure we’re telling a complete story of our state. 

  1. Local is where we can scale what we learn.   

The folks advancing news and information networks across communities nationwide are brilliant, innovative people.  And yet, we share the same challenges: finding capacity, finding support, and finding solutions amid uncertainty. Tackling these challenges requires working together. 

Local leaders who swap ideas and hard-won lessons benefit all roles within a news and information ecosystem – from WhatsApp moderators, to public interest attorneys, to community health workers. In 2024 and beyond, we need to further invest in the organizations and people already filling information needs and create entry points for people who want to contribute their time, talents, and financial resources. What’s more, we need to invest in opportunities for these organizations and people to build relationships that make the work lighter and continue articulating the nuanced, unique story of North Carolina.  

The story of our future is local. Join us to build it.   

The Fund has worked alongside fellow funders and leaders from the field for the last six years to ensure that everyone in North Carolina can find, trust, and use the information they need to thrive. As the home of Press Forward North Carolina, we continue this work through 2024 and beyond. We invite you to join us, whether here in North Carolina or by applying a place-based approach in your region. Here are a few ways you can share ideas, tap into the lessons learned by others, and ultimately build a stronger news and information ecosystem.   

For Funders:   

  • Join A Press Forward Local Chapter. Check out Press Forward Local’s website to learn more about their local chapters and see if there’s one established near you.   
  • Come To Our Next Funder Huddle. The Fund’s huddles are designed for funders to try new things together, ask questions in a funder-only space, and break out of our silos. As a result, attendees leave with tangible actions they can take to support their community impact strategies and their approaches to news, information, and communications.   
    We’d love to see you at our next huddle. Interested? Drop me a line at to learn more.

For Local News and Community Organizations:

  • Sign Up For The Fund’s Office Hours. My office hours are intended to make philanthropy and the Fund more accessible, especially to those who are new to grant seeking. Learning about organizations’ work and goals also helps me — and our funder coalition at large — understand what people in NC need to help inform their communities. Consider signing up for an office hour here.  


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