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Mapping the News and Information Ecosystem

Envisioning what the news and information ecosystem looks like contributes to creating it.

Understanding a complex system is no easy task. Maps simplify reality to highlight useful distinctions. They give form to an abstract idea, like a news and information ecosystem. Just as nature’s ecosystem is a community of living organisms ­— plants, animals and microbes ­— interacting with nonliving components in their environment ­— air, water and soil, a news and information ecosystem consists of the interactions among its organisms ­— journalists, the public, journalism educators, media reformers, and others ­— in their environment ­— organizations, associations, the Internet, mobile devices.

Whether natural systems or social systems, mapping makes visible nonlinear, complex relationships. Think of the many maps of the human body from science class: circulatory system, nervous system, muscular system and others. Communication becomes easier because of a common framework. Consider the breakthroughs attributed to mapping the human genome. Health care providers have an increased capacity to treat, prevent and cure disease. New technologies for sharing information and working with it are also among the benefits.

Imagine a comparable set of maps of the news and information ecosystem. They could help us to pursue questions like:

    •    Where are innovations happening?
    •    Where are opportunities for new ideas?
    •    Who’s funding what aspects of the system? And what needs funding?
    •    What’s missing? What else needs to be visible on the map?

Different kinds of maps help us understand different aspects of a system. They can be used for understanding what to measure. As noted in the Knight Commission report on the news and information needs of communities, “If activists, policymakers, and the general public had more concrete ways of describing, measuring and comparing the systems of community news and information flow, it would be much easier to mobilize public interest around community information needs.”

One news executive experienced the practical benefits of mapping when he saw a network map (one segment below) created for the 2010 JTM Pacific Northwest conference. He noticed the competition near the center. His organization was off to the side. A colleague explained antiquated technology caused the problem. Shortly after the conference, that technology changed.

Thanks to Richard Rogers, director of Foundation, Amsterdam for creating the map.

Dr. Michelle Ferrier, Associate Dean for Innovation at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication (and JTM board member), is creating geographic maps of media deserts. By mapping places where fresh news and information is lacking, these maps identify where resources are most needed. Her proof of concept used North Carolina. One of the series is pictured here.

In 2008, JTM created its much copied value network maps of the old and emerging news and information ecosystems. (Visit the link for the emerging ecosystem map.)

Value Network Maps are a terrific approach for understanding the interactions of a complex system. They help identify opportunities for partnerships, innovation, development, and much more.

Much has happened since that 2008 map making session. Were we to map what’s emerging today by focusing on possibility, engagement, and diversity, we could chart pioneering territory, making visible opportunities for further advances and wider adoption.

As a start, I offer a simple functional map of a news and information ecosystem, along with a preliminary list of agents. Far from complete, it gives a glimpse into what is emerging.

Roles in a News and Information Ecosystem

Content Creators/Storytellers
  • Reporters
    • Professional
    • Amateur
    • Community
    • Organizational (business, nonprofit)
    • Investigators
    • Long form narrative writers
    • Short form narrative writers
    • Editorial writers
    • Beat reporters
    • Bloggers
    • Data handlers


  • Print
  • Broadcast
    • Radio
      • Traditional
      • Low power FM
      • Satellite
      • Internet
    • TV
  • Online
    • Social media
    • Blogs
    • Emerging forms
      • Games
      • Hip hop
      • Comedy
  • Other dimensions
    • Public/private
    • Large/small
    • Geographic/topical


  • Curators
  • Aggregators
  • Fact checkers
  • Transparency advocates


  • General Public
  • Supporters
    • Community stewards/ navigators/ombudsmen
    • Media Reformers
    • Community organizers
    • Librarians


  • Librarians
  • Others?


  • Academics
  • Librarians
  • Historians
  • Evaluators


  • Government
  • Business
  • Media Advocates
  • Educators
  • Ethicists­ — people who bring important questions like:
    • What is newsworthy?
    • What lenses serve our storytelling?
    • Who tells our stories?
    • What are the roles of the system and how can they best serve the needs of communities and democracy?
    • How do we reach everyone?
    • What is advocacy?


  • Advertisers
  • Foundations
  • Public ­— Fees for service, products
  • Venture capitalists
  • Angel investors
  • Others?


  • Teachers
  • Students
  • For the public — Media literacy organizations
  • For the story tellers
  • Topics
    • Craft
    • Ethics
    • Technology
    • Analysis
    • Investigation
    • Engagement
    • Systems Thinking and Change
    • News Judgment — choosing stories
    • Entrepreneurship
    • Media law

You can help make it better. What roles, functions, and connections do you see in the ecosystem? The clearer the picture of what we want to create, the greater our ability to realize it.

I end my series on journalism in changing times with a challenge. We are in a pioneering era in which the mental maps that guide us are being redrawn. Not just in journalism, but also in education, health care, governance, and every social system. No matter where you are, learn to navigate uncertainty. Look for possibilities, engage others, and welcome the creative potential diversity brings. Tell your stories, map new terrain. Make a difference wherever you are.

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Follow up on last week’s post, An Expanded Purpose for Journalism

Email was still the primary vehicle of choice for responding, though Facebook also brought some comments.  Jane Stevens, Founder, editor of, offered the example of WellCommons, Lawrence Journal-World’s local social journalism health site.  I’ll be saying more about the award-winning WellCommons in the next post in this series.  So stay tuned!
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This blog was originally posted on the Journalism That Matters site. It is reposted here in its original form and with permission.

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Peggy Holman's picture

Since 1991, Peggy Holman has supported organizations and communities to uncover creative responses to complex challenges by using innovative engagement processes. The Change Handbook (Berrett-Koehler, 2007), which she co-edited with Tom Devane and Steven Cady, documents a variety of these processes. The book is the considered the definitive resource for leaders and consultants who work to increase resilience, agility, collaboration, and aliveness in their organizations and communities.

Peggy co-founded Journalism that Matters (JTM) in 2001 with three career journalists – Chris Peck, Cole Campbell, and Stephen Silha. JTM generates innovations by convening, connecting, and inspiring the diverse pioneers who are shaping the emerging news and information ecology.

Peggy’s latest book, Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity, came out in September 2010. The book supports people in facing disruptions and inviting others to join with them to realize new possibilities. It uses numerous journalism stories as examples.

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Both journalists and the public have a role to play in reinventing journalism that supports communities to thrive. I see journalists grappling with two bedrock elements of their work: their relationship with truth and the ethics of engagement.

During times of upheaval, we need stories that are inclusive, generative, and inspire us to engage. Some journalists are starting to provide them.

How can you contribute to a healthy journalism ecosystem?

Innovation demands diversity, using our differences creatively.

Engagement increases respect, appreciation, and partnership between journalists and communities. In 1775, the American Revolution launched an experiment in engagement called “democracy”. That sparked a critical need for an informed public and ignited a mass literacy movement.

Journalism can help us envision and move towards a world that works for all.  Journalists have a unique role as storytellers, influencing the cultural narrative that weaves society together. Through my work in organizations, I know that when the stories people tell about the organization change, so does the culture.  The same holds true on the scale of a society.  

What does a re-vitalized, economically viable journalism that meets the needs of communities and democracies look like?