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Journalism for Navigating Uncertainty: The Diversity Principle

Innovation demands diversity, using our differences creatively.

I was speaking with an African-American colleague about the news. Growing up in an economically disadvantaged part of Los Angeles, the stories never reflected his reality. So he never developed a news habit.


His story points to a key aspect of diversity — diversity of voice. The Maynard Institute’s Fault Lines consider race, class, gender, generation and geography. Religion and political persuasion, the roles we play and our different world views are also dimensions of diverse voice.

In the context of news and information that serves communities and democracy, diversity of form and funding also play a role.  More on them shortly.

Why Diversity of Voice?

If you want innovation, engage the diversity of people in a system. The usual suspects tend to have the same conversation and reach the same conclusions.  In the U.S., traditional media has never reflected the public’s diversity. The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) 2013 census showed 12% of newsroom employees are of color when, according to Wikipedia, the minority population is 28%. Emerging media is creating a similar demographic mix. J-Lab’s 2009 database of new media makers identified about 10% of foundation money – a principle funding source for new ventures – went to those focused on communities of color. That funding mix merits changing!

Journalism that helps us understand multiple perspectives on complex issues helps us navigate through them. Welcoming conditions and possibility-oriented questions set the stage for diversity that sparks creativity. Action is easier because no one needs to be “sold.” Everyone can find themselves in the desired outcomes and works to realize them. For example, the Oakland Tribune is discovering a new relationship with its audience through Oakland Voices, which trains residents as citizen journalists.

In system change, a turning point occurs when we see how we fit together as a whole. We begin to operate as a social body, using differences to discover solutions none could create on their own.

Consider a sports stadium for experiencing many angles. The scoreboard shows the state of play. Cameras spotlight action on the field and in the audience. Television extends reach. Statistics online let professional commentators and ordinary people put activities in perspective. Immersed, we understand the experience from many perspectives.

Imagine journalism that makes the state of the economy, education, or a war that visible. What if we could see how different populations, ages, functions, ethnicities look at it? Shared goals and aspirations emerge along with increased willingness to hear other perspectives. Compassion deepens. We become creative partners to reach wiser answers to the challenges of a complex world.


Why Diversity of Form?

Beyond newspapers, radio, and TV, social media, like Twitter and Facebook, are growing forms of distribution. Smart phones and tablets create new opportunities for how we get news. Less obvious forms for sharing stories include comedy, video games, and hip-hop.

These forms reach people who opt out of traditional news sources. In 2012, Pew Research Center found the Colbert Report and The Daily Show were the most watched news shows for those under 30. As in the days when troubadours brought news to town, Jasiri X raps the news. Using an editor to fact check stories, he reaches an audience most newspapers never will.

American Public Media (APM), content provider to National Public Radio stations, developed an online game, Budget Hero, to balance the federal budget. The game educates players on the consequences of their choices. With participant demographic data, APM can report on perspectives across the spectrum of age, geography, political party, and other dimensions. Isn’t that an exciting basis for a conversation?

Not every form is great for every type of story. Yet each form has something to contribute to the larger discourse. Imagine the role that Twitter would have played had it existed when Watergate was unfolding. To engage a wider diversity of voices, consider emerging forms.


Why Diversity of Funding?

With advertising waning, who will pay for quality content? Numerous experiments, including subscription services, pay walls, co-ops, member donations, and government funding are all being tested.

When journalism provides the news and information we need to be free and self-governing through engagement, a possibility orientation, and a diversity of voices using a diversity of forms, the public will fund journalism in ways that no one has yet envisioned.

So how do we get to such a state? While I have an answer, I know something about the path. Join me next time to explore this question. But first, here are a few tips on working with diversity.


Tips on Diversity

  • Be curious. A desire to know, to learn, to be open to the unknown prepares us to engage with difference.
  • Clarify intention. Why go to the trouble unless there is something you value? Intention—purpose—acts as a compass, setting direction while you travel in the wilderness.
  • Consider who/what makes up the system. What functions, constituencies, or roles are involved? What mix of race, class, gender, geography, and generation is important?
  • Go where people different from you live and work. Be humble. Listen. Learn. Reach out. Show that you are interested in partnership.
  • Invite others. Complex challenges require us all.  Reach out to those who ARE IN — with Authority, Resources, Expertise, Information, and Need. People notice different aspects of a situation. With a shared intention, more eyes and ears, hearts and minds, increase the chances of uncovering the gems.
  • Take a risk.  New outcomes come from new actions.  By definition, that involves the unknown.
  • Say “yes” and welcome what comes. Working with the unexpected increases the likelihood of creative outcomes.
  • Expect messiness. Difference brings disruptions. Use them creatively by working through issues that surface. It prepares you for increasing scale and scope.
  • Develop equanimity. Being calm in a storm increases the likelihood of surviving and bringing others with you.



Got something to contribute?

A tip? An article? A comment? I’ve started gathering resources. We need more diversity resources! So please add by

Unless you explicitly request otherwise, I will post comments received from all media in the comment space below.


Reflections on last week’s post: The Engagement Principle

Mike Fancher, retired Executive Editor, Seattle Times and Journalism That Matters board member, offered a resource: Participatory Journalism: Guarding Open Gates at Online Newspapers by Jane Singer and others. He said the authors spoke to the idea of “people inside and outside the newsroom communicating not only to, but with, one another.”

Check out the comment from Kevin Fleming, Master’s Student in Mass Public Communications and Technology at Colorado State University, at An Expanded Purpose for Journalism. He writes about the potential for newspaper involvement in deliberative engagement with the public.

I asked people to respond to what makes something newsworthy in a word or phrase.  Via Twitter and LinkedIn, you told me.  In a Wordl, here’s what you said:





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Journalism for Navigating Uncertainty: The Engagement Principle

Engagement increases respect, appreciation, and partnership between journalists and communities.

NewsEco-Journalism-as_croppedIn 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.

Today’s technological wonders are generating a “media literacy” movement that is fueling a new level of engagement. Journalism is no longer a one-way communication from journalist to audience. It is a conversation. News and information is created, published, curated, used, archived, influenced and more by anyone.  And many use social media to communicate and make meaning from news and information with friends, family, interest groups, and strangers.

As the founders knew when they shaped the First Amendment to guarantee free speech and a free press, engagement is essential to democracy and to vibrant community life. As Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow, Mike Fancher, puts it, public trust grows through public engagement.

The Lawrence Journal World’s WellCommons.com, is a great example. Its chief architect, Jane Ellen Stevens invited the public to help define it.  According to Stevens, they set a goal to be the go-to place for news and information on health and wellbeing in the region. Half of the content comes from community members and half from professional reporters. The site has changed the community’s conversation about health and caused a more solutions-focused style of reporting.

Like many other professions, journalists are renegotiating their roles and responsibilities as professionals. Among the new roles: community hosts, data wranglers, and beat bloggers. Consider some shifts in who provides content:

NewsEco-Journalist-as_croppedPersonal storytelling. Schools, libraries, and even journalism organizations are teaching skills to the public to help them discern quality, reliable content and to support people in creating their own stories. For example, through the “Living Textbook”, Arab American seventh graders learn journalism skills and tell stories about identity and how they see the world.

Community and organizational storytelling. With fewer professional journalists, communities and organizations are taking charge of their stories.  For example, the Colorado Health Foundation created the Colorado KaleidosCOpe, a “statewide storytelling campaign designed to shine a bright light on the good work of our grantee partners and the people whose lives they impact.”

Professional journalistic storytelling. Professionals still contextualize, deepen and amplify stories.  They can tell complex stories that take dedicated research and do the analysis and communication to help tackle tough subjects. They can help us make sense of the overwhelming amounts of information by showing us patterns and trends that shape society.

Because of these shifting roles and cultural changes, both journalists and the public they serve are asking a key question:

What is newsworthy? 

No longer solely controlled by journalists, how shall we –journalists and the public – discern what stories are critical for our communities and democracy? Journalists want to be relevant and trusted. The public wants important and trustworthy information. Imagine a full partnership: journalism of, by and for the people. That requires engagement.  The principles that follow speak to how to make that happen, where you are in the system.

Tips for Engaging

Whether online or in face-to-face conversations, some strategies to remember:

  • Invite the people who care about the issue, then welcome who and what shows up.
  • Ask real questions — meaningful ones for which you don’t know the answers and are genuinely curious.
  • Make it simple and easy to get involved. Consider accessibility. In person, handle parking and daycare.  Online, be crisp, brief, and able to participate with one click.
  • Make it fun. We’re more creative and collaborative when having a good time.  In person, have food.
  • Make space for individual expression and connection with others. We all crave to be authentic and to belong.  Support both.
  • Work in cycles. Offer context and a question. Invite a response.  Feedback or reflect together on what you learn, likely triggering another cycle.
  • Treat disruptors with compassion and respect while being firm and clear about appropriate behavior.  They likely have something important to contribute but lack the skills to communicate it.  Welcome the message while handling bad behavior.

Just as engagement is key for successful system change, diversity fuels innovation and a sense that we’re all in it together.  Stay tuned for more in the next post.

In the spirit of sparking engagement: enter a word or phrase on how you decide what is newsworthy in the comments below.

Got something to contribute?

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


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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.



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Online Community/News Franchise Blog Up

Submitted by Michelle Ferrier on Fri, 08/07/2009 – 12:24pm

The Women’s Online News Franchise blog is up and running at http://michelleferrier.wordpress.com …but it is so much more. More broadly the blog is called “Digital Content Architects” and examines all kinds of interesting things I find along this journey toward the news franchise concept.

My most recent posts: “The Wonderful CMS of Oz: Off to find some wizards” points to the qualities of a good online community CMS (not news CMS, but one with real community functions). And in “What you ‘do’ comes before what you call it,” I look at the quandary of searching for a domain name before you know what you want to do on a site.

I’ll specifically be chronicling the franchise journey under the category “Franchise” with WCNF as the tag. So look for those specifically if you’re interested in the project.

Of course, like many of you, if I wait around for that wizard I may never get started on my journey down this yellow brick road. So you can virtually watch me tear my hair out as I come to terms with flying monkeys, poppies and COMPROMISES!


Michelle Ferrier