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An Expanded Purpose for Journalism

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

Imagine a news organization that invites the public to become sources to “add context, depth, humanity, and relevance” to news stories.”  That’s what American Public media is doing through its Public Insight Network.  In Cleveland, Rita Andolsen left her news director job at WKYC-TV to become the station’s director of advocacy and community initiatives.  Now she hosts community conversations and looks for issues where this commercial station can ethically advocate on behalf of the community to improve the city and its neighborhoods. Or what about publishing a series making visible the widening economic and social gap between minorities and whites in the state and then convening statewide conversations to do something about it?  Laura Frank, executive director of the I-News Network in Colorado, led the way through “Losing Ground.”  (Crockett, 2013).

These examples of involving the public before, during, and after stories are published demonstrate an expanded purpose for journalism.  Not just informing, they also engage, inspire, and activate the public to create solutions. They help to recast attitudes of frustration, anger, and despair by calling forth resilience, curiosity and determination.  Journalism becomes a system that involves journalists and the public in shifting cultural narratives about what’s possible.

Drawn below as a framework for thinking holistically about journalism, telling the story is part of a system of interactions that help us to navigate through uncertainty.  This model emerged from a conversation that I had with Tom Atlee, founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute when he attended JTM’s 2008 New Pamphleteers conference in Minneapolis.


A System of Purposes for Journalism, Tom Atlee


I spoke with Mike Fancher, retired executive editor of the Seattle Times, asking how such a model might have influenced the way the Times did its work.  He began by saying that the newspaper did all of these functions to some extent.  What excited him about this framework was that it treated journalism as a system.

He mentioned a story of a state crime lab that documented cases of innocent people going to jail and guilty ones going free because of system problems at the lab.  It was an important story that did its job of informing the public.  Yet nothing happened.  Mike reflected that traditionally, journalists don’t feel any obligation to help make something happen.

“With a more holistic approach, we probably would have built in elements that were move effective at motivating, mobilizing, inspiring and activating.”

This type of journalism could provide the public with the agency to work together to ask more complex questions about our prevailing cultural narratives such as: Who decides whether our systems – education, health care, governance — meet our needs? What do such systems look like? How do we create them?

Our society faces a dynamic tension.  An old media system that we understood, whether satisfied with it or not, is declining.  A new ecosystem filled with experiments and unanswered questions about how it operates and who and what to pay attention to, is emerging. Journalism organizations that work holistically with their communities are building authenticity and trust, moving beyond serving consumers to creating people and communities in action.

Such a journalism ecosystem requires changes in mindsets, skills, and activities.  Based on my work in organizational systems, I offer three keys in cultivating such a system: possibility-oriented storytelling, engaged constituencies, and diversity, in voices, forms, and funding. I’ll explore one of these each week over the next three weeks.


Got something to contribute?

A story?  A question?  A resource? A comment? In the spirit of JTM’s aspiration to be a go-to place for connecting people involved with the emerging news and information ecosystem, join in. You can:

Unless you explicitly request otherwise, I will post comments sent via any of the above in the comment space on this page.

Also, several of you asked if it was okay to share these posts.  Please do spread the word!



Follow up on last week’s post, What do we need from journalism?

Most respondants emailed me.  Some replied via Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.  Responses came from the U.S., the Netherlands, Korea, Brazil, Jordan, and Israel. Tom Atlee was inspired to post an article: Journalism to Energize Citizen Deliberative Democracy.  An Israeli journalist offered a story that I hope to share soon.  Wout-Jan Koridon suggested The Intelligent Optimist (formerly ODE Magazine) as an example.  My favorite comment came from Detroit-based information architect and Journalism That Matters alumni Mary Ann Chick Whiteside, who said: “Interesting idea to put hope as a benchmark of good journalism.” More of what you offered can be found here.



Read the other posts in this series:

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What Do We Need from Journalism?

Given the pace of change today, we need journalism that helps us to navigate through uncertainty.

If the purpose of journalism is to support us in making sense of our world, providing the news and information we need to be free and self-governing, what does that tell us about stories that help us find our way in times of change? It calls for an expanded purposejournalism that not only informs, but also engages, inspires, and activates us to be free and self-governing.

Such journalism involves:

NewsEco-Journalism-purpose_med_res.jpgMy perspective comes from thirteen years of working with journalists through Journalism That Matters.  It is also influenced by consulting to organizations facing upheaval and as an author of two books on system change. I have seen that the stories we tell matter. They shape our actions.

As cultural storytellers, journalists influence our collective story.  In his groundbreaking work, The Image of the Future, social scientist Fred Polak tells us that cultures without a positive image of their future die within a generation.  Think about that.  Our future depends on positive images.  So cultural narratives – the stories we collectively tell ourselves – are more critical than most of us realize.

Likely unconsciously, most traditional media have approached their mission by telling stories that tend to keep our institutions stable.  They treat the functioning of our educational systems, political systems, healthcare systems, governance systems and other basic systems of society as a given.

When our institutions cease to serve us well, it shows up in the complexity of the issues we face and conflicts over how best to handle them. At such times, journalism that helps us to navigate through uncertainty can inspire and equip us — the public — to engage with complex challenges, taking charge of the well being of our communities and our democracies.

Such a focus raises some essential questions, like: Who decides what is newsworthy? And how?  And even: who decides whether our systems are meeting the needs of the people they are intended to serve?

In that light, consider how much journalistic storytelling uses conflict to make a story compelling. Even if it makes a good story, for many of us, it creates a sense of hopelessness.  Think about how differently you respond to a story about our education system failing and one about education innovations that are making a difference. One story leaves most of us in despair, believing there’s nothing we can do. The other can spark action, motivating us to get involved.

Inspiring and engaging stories don’t need to ignore conflict. They succeed by contextualizing them via big picture aspirations that provide positive images that inspire action.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll elaborate on these ideas in posts on an expanded purpose of journalism, and three principles: possibilityengagement, and diversity. The series ends with some suggestions on what you can do to support a re-vitalized, economically viable journalism that meets the needs of communities and democracies. As a companion piece, I’ll offer a draft functional map of the news and information ecosystem.

Got something to contribute?

A story? A question? A resource? In the spirit of JTM’s aspiration to be a go-to place for connecting people involved with the emerging news and information ecosystem, I invite you to join in. You can:


Read the other posts in this series:

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The case for government investment in journalism, a manifesto


Dr. Michelle Ferrier is an associate professor in the School of Communications at Elon University in North Carolina. She is also vice president of Journalism That Matters.

At the end of this discourse, someone will accuse me of fouling my own nest. That’s if you ever even see this commentary, printed or online in what used to be called the local newspaper.

Regardless, it will circulate. As do the words of the late Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS journalist, more than 50 years later that start this letter. Because if the structures of networks and media ownership and cultural representation remain the same — if they continue unaltered – then the main of us may look up one day dazed at what has transpired and realize we have done it to ourselves.

The North Carolina General Assembly this spring is considering the rollback of a longtime requirement for some local governments that legal notices be printed in newspapers, a revenue stream for publishers totaling millions of dollars a year. States across the country, including neighboring Virginia, have been gnawing on the issue as well.

Should HB 504 become law, nine North Carolina counties and municipalities would no longer be dependent on their local publications as a vehicle for bidding out state contracts, announcing property foreclosures, or conducting in public any of several other government or legal business. The counties represented in this bill could instead post notices on their own electronic servers.

But what would be lost in the transaction? The legacy local newspaper, most likely, already facing technological disruption, the “great collapse” of revenue from classified, display and subscriptions, a product struggling to reinvent itself in our brave, new digital world.

For more on this post, visit: http://wp.me/pgDpt-7C

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Journalism is Dead; Long Live Journalism


April 3 and 4
Denver, CO

What’s great in the emerging news and information ecosystem?

Journalism That Matters comes to Denver for a two-day gathering of  journalists, technologists, educators, students, librarians, and engaged citizens. Come prepared to document what’s working in the new news ecosystem . . . and collaborate to amplify journalism’s values, principles and purposes regardless of form.

For more information,

visit The New Journalism.

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6 Actionable Ideas for Solving Political Fact-Checking and Rewarding Truth

"Rewarding the Truth" -- Sept. 25

Summary of JTM National Teleconference Sept. 25 on “Facts, Fibs, and Accountability in Political Reporting”
One key to solving the politics/political reporting dilemma of facts and fact-checking may be to engage people as more than voters.

“When politics and political leaders treat the public like consumers more than voters and politics as a product, then the public is disengaged,” said Marla Crockett, chair of the National Coalition for Dialog and Deliberation, “We need to engage them more in the process.”

On Tuesday, September 25th, about 40 intrepid people came together for an experiment in conversing on a topic of civic importance:

What will it take to increase the rewards for telling the truth in politics?

Here’s the audio.
(1 hour, 8 minutes 63 MB)

The participant mix was about 25% educators, with the other 75% divided relatively evenly among traditional media people, new media people, civic activists and media reformers, community members, students and others.

Using Maestro Conference, a technology for social conferencing, Journalism That Matters brought together voices of politicians, the public, and the press to consider a better way. Journalism That Matters has convened face-to-face conversations on the new news ecology for more than 10 years and hosted two start-up weekend events for media entrepreneurs of color.

The ideas ranged from the simple to the systemic:

  1. Collaborate among news outlets to check the facts. If different organizations take on different elements, the bandwidth for covering a broader range of issues increases.
  2. Focus on trends in accuracy.  In addition to following the economics of campaigns, follow the veracity of their discourse.  Move from episodic reporting of the facts in a speech to the tenor of the campaign.
  3. Use crowd-sourcing for fact-checking through platforms like Twitter. It engages the public directly in making sense of political discourse.
  4. Cite sources in stories. It demonstrates integrity and helps with verification.
  5. Increase training in news/media/civic literacy, particularly in schools.  Are we asking the wrong question? In a world where we’ve got a stark divide, looking for the facts is too small.  We need to provide the public with the skills for discerning the quality of their sources.
  6. Engage in dialogue.  In an environment of entrenched cultural narratives, use skilled civic engagement practices to bring together people with differing views in conversations that move deeper than the usual rhetoric.

In the spirit of Journalism That Matter’s face-to-face convenings, the focus on the call was to look towards possibilities.  JTM chooses this strategy – focusing on what is working – because a wealth of research demonstrates that human systems thrive when people have an image of a desirable future.  Such images inspire people to move towards what they wish to create[1].

Michelle Ferrier, associate professor of communications at Elon University and a Journalism That Matters board member, moderated the call. She framed the solution as one that gives responsibility to politicians, journalists and the public.

“Accurate reporting isn’t just what we do during the election cycle, but what journalists must do everyday,” she said. “While we’ve heard more conversation lately, we have to look at the infrastructure to build something that works consistently.”

She introduced the four conversation catalysts who talked about the issue from their different perspectives:

  • Justin Peters, managing editor/web and and a political writer at the Columbia Journalism Review
  • Les Ihara Jr. Hawaii State Senator, who has served as Senate Majority Policy Leader since 2006
  • Marla Crockett, chair of the National Coalition for Dialog and Deliberation and former news anchor, producer and news manager at public radio KERA in Dallas.
  • Dan Conover, newspaper political reporter.

Justin Peters opened, saying that legacy print and broadcast media don’t see fact-checking as part of basic news reporting. He said it’s kept off to the side, as a second thought after the main story.  That means fact-checking doesn’t happen “on cycle”, which diminishes its impact. The solution: Rethink newsroom priorities, because fact-checking is becoming instantaneous by citizens on social-media platforms.

Senator Ihara spoke of his choice to pursue a politics of integrity, recognizing that it means being willing to lose.  He said, “I don’t believe the ends justify the means.  This is the core value of the prevailing political culture.  When the public values integrity, the political climate will shift.”

Dan Conover built on that theme from the perspective of political reporting, saying that the ultimate answer must go well beyond fact-checking to declaring a perspective, a claim to authority.  When a journalist speaks to what s/he wishes to accomplish, it moves the focus from catching people in lies to setting a context for a productive system of exchange among politicians, the public, and the press.

Marla Crockett closed by offering a view of the public’s role in our political system.  Beyond voting, Crockett said, “The public is the greatest underdeveloped resource that we have in our political system.”  Rather than treating voters as consumers of a political product, it’s time to focus on engaging the public in the political process.

Following these remarks, our technical host, Amy Lenzo, split the group in to discussion groups of four people to discuss the question:

Imagine political reporting at its best. As rare as they’ve been, what are some examples you’ve seen? What could it look like?

When people returned to the plenary call, 20 minutes later, they named the ideas notes above for changing the situation. With some new ideas in hand, the call wrapped up in 1 and a half hours.

[1] Cooperrider, D. L. (2000). Positive Image, Positive Action: The Affirmative Basis of Organizing.  Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking Human Organization Toward a Positive Theory of Change, 29–53.