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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.


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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: