How to Use Network Mapping to Build Partnerships and Expand Reach

Kamila Jambulatova
We Are Hearken
Published in
6 min readMay 7, 2021


What is Network Mapping, and why should you care about it? Network Mapping, or Stakeholder Mapping, is not an overly complex idea but rather a concrete first step to identify who you are serving or underserving, and how you can commit to expanding that reach. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to use Network Mapping, plus advice from journalists on how to get buy-in from the rest of the newsroom, and best strategies for community partnerships.

Where did Network Mapping come from?

Last summer, Election SOS conducted training for journalists based on The Citizens Agenda approach — instead of the horse-race coverage, newsrooms empowered the public to set the agenda for politicians. As part of the training, Bridget Thoreson, a former project manager, led participants through the Network Mapping exercise to set goals for their coverage.

Since then, newsrooms have adopted the practice when reaching out to underserved communities and building partnerships. Elise Stolte from the Edmonton Journal wrote about it for Nieman Lab. During the Election SOS Summit, “Better Journalism: A Roadmap for Engaged Democracy,” WBEZ’s Politics Editor Alex Keefe, and Engagement Producer Katherine Nagasawa, and Jennifer Hack Wolf, an Audience Development Manager from The Beacon, shared their advice on how they built successful community partnerships to engage new audience segments, specifically historically underserved and marginalized communities.

So how do you Network Map?

First, let’s talk about how to go about this exercise:

  1. Start with a whiteboard, a google doc, or download the exercise template here (Appendix of the Election SOS report).
  2. Get together with your teammates. Our advice is that starting with a smaller group of colleagues can be most productive.
  3. Pick a subject: it can be your organization or topic of coverage/conversation.
  4. Write down as many stakeholders as possible. Once the low-hanging fruit ideas run out, keep going. The most creative ideas come when you start thinking outside of your traditional stakeholders.
  5. Consider different questions and ways of organizing stakeholders: instead of defaulting to geography, think about impact, culture, and behavior. You might notice that new themes emerge.
  • Ask yourself who is impacted by your coverage most/least? Who are you already reaching/not reaching?
  • Think about vaccine access, for example. How about people with transportation barriers or folks who live alone? Who is thriving when it comes to vaccine access? Who isn’t?

6. Keep refreshing your ideas and updating your network map!

Now, you have a visual representation of the groups you are trying to serve. The next and probably most crucial step is NOT to find a way to reach ALL those people. The goal is to find a narrow group to serve better and find ways to create a deep commitment for a more meaningful impact.

Reaching underserved communities

Network Mapping can help you take an honest look at the diversity of your sources. Ask yourself how you are actively broadening the communities you serve. It also encourages you to think outside of simple binary categories. Think expansively about who are your community influencers. Is there a community group of involved parents you can reach out to? Who is currently serving your target audience?

When it comes to reaching out to underserved communities, it’s also important to consider the history, or the lack of it, between the newsroom and the community. Newsrooms have to understand and respect the hesitancy these communities may have to engage with your team. WBEZ suggests your newsroom and team ask themselves: Are you doing something for the community you serve or about the community you serve? Once you start your engagement work, go deep and narrow and focus on closing the feedback loop first. Then, continue on building on both successes and failures.

A lightning session on network mapping with WBEZ’s Alex Keefe and Katherine Nagasawa from the Election SOS Summit, “Better Journalism: A Roadmap for Engaged Democracy”

Community Partnerships

An excerpt from the Election SOS report

Partnerships take effort, but they will also allow you to strengthen the relationships and earn the trust of the community faster. You might have already partnered with your local library before, but here are some of the top advice on successful collaborations from the newsrooms:

Be ready to have conversations about ethics

  • What would it look like to partner with a Mexican consulate?
  • What about a religious institution?
  • How do you make sure that you are not promoting the organization, or appear so?
  • How do you clearly label your paid or organic social promos for your audience?

Those are some of the thorny questions WBEZ found themselves considering when working on their engagement campaign. As you pursue partnerships, you might have to develop ethical guidelines to communicate to your audience too. If you are unsure about the lines, WBEZ’s Alex Keefe’s biggest advice is: Treat partnerships like you treat sources!

Explain the mutual benefits

It’s also good to consider your potential partners’ motivations for collaboration and have a frank conversation about it early on. They might see you as free advertising without realizing the uniqueness of partnering with a news organization. A bit of education on your part can help them understand the ethical framework of your work together.

On the flip side, you also have to provide a benefit to your community partner. To save yourself some time and potential fallbacks, have clear communication upfront. WBEZ suggests you list the value you can provide and the value you are looking for, and then share it with the partner to get a written agreement. It doesn’t have to be a legal document, but rather an explicit expectation to make sure you are on the same page. As you build more partnerships, make sure to templatize this. Not every partnership is going to work out, and that’s okay. Again, it’s like sources, you will reach out to a lot of people, but not everyone will end up being quoted in your final story.

Prioritize wisely

Jennifer Hack Wolf shared that The Beacon worked with several partners during the past elections, like voter education companies, civic hackers, and more. They didn’t end up dealing with as many advocacy issues but rather had to figure out where to channel their resources. This is where it comes full circle. They used Network Mapping to help them prioritize potential community partnerships to focus on which places can help them create the most impact within the specific community.

A lightning session on developing a community network with The Beacon’s Jennifer Hack Wolf from the Election SOS Summit, “Better Journalism: A Roadmap for Engaged Democracy”

Getting Newsroom Buy-In

So how do you bake this work into your newsroom processes? The Beacon, for example, uses the Network Mapping exercise as an onboarding tool and when brainstorming new beats. But before that, making a case for reaching a new audience might be the first step you have to take. The idea of reaching everyone in your community isn’t realistic, and instead, you have to make the case that super-serving a new and narrow group of people is worth the time commitment. It’s likely your organization is/will be going through a cultural shift. You have to remind yourself and others that it’s hard to immediately make an impact you want to make. And that’s okay!

As part of their engagement work, WBEZ conducted tabling events, a time-intensive effort that required them to make a compelling case to management. Here are some of the advice Nagasawa and Keefe shared:

  1. Connect your efforts to organizational DEI goals.
  2. Find ways to connect it to revenue. Involve newsroom stakeholders. Provide a clear deliverable, for example, collecting email addresses to create a membership pipeline.
  3. Start small. Tell compelling stories and consistently show successes to the rest of the newsroom.
  4. Consider new ways of tracking impact. How are stories amplified in the community?
A lightning session on getting engagement buy-in with WSJ’s Taylor Nakagawa from the Election SOS Summit, “Better Journalism: A Roadmap for Engaged Democracy”

Good luck Network Mapping! Please try it and share your successes with us!

To get more lessons on trust-building and engagement from 19 newsrooms, download the Election SOS report.