JTM News

The Art of Engagement: The Role of Journalism in a Civic Infrastructure

At the October 2012 National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation Conference, about 40 people came together to consider how journalists and practitioners of civic engagement might work together to improve the information health of communities.

Three “conversation catalysts” set the stage:

Following their remarks, detailed below, participants broke into groups of 4-6 people to consider two questions:

  • What do you see as the role of journalism in a civic infrastructure?
  • What could partnerships between journalists and practitioners of civic engagement look like?

The whole group then re-convened to discuss their responses. Captured by graphic recorder, Ann M. Jess, high points included:

  • Just do it – get something started with journalists and civic engagement practitioners working together.
  • Teach journalists the skills of convening and facilitating.
  • Convene journalists to consider what is the civic infrastructure for civic dialogue?

Graphic Recording by Ann M. Jess, www.thedoodlebiz.com



Peggy Holman opened the session, speaking to the question:

What do we need from the emerging news and information ecosystem?

Her comments were based on JTM’s eleven years of interactive gatherings among the diverse people who are shaping the news and information ecosystem.  Offering the notion that in times of upheaval an emerging role for journalism is to help us navigate through uncertainty, Peggy spoke to three emerging aspects in the ecosystem that help to accomplish that:

  • Journalism as a conversation, as exemplified by WellCommons, a place where community and journalists work together to create a healthier community in Lawrence and Douglas Counties, Kansas.
  • Storytelling that speaks to possibilities, mentioning Axiom News, who serves its audience by writing and sharing strength-based news stories.
  • Increasing diversity – in the stories told, in the storytellers, and in the forms of storytelling. Peggy cited as examples American Public Media’s Budget Hero, a game for balancing the federal budget, and Jasiri X, who does the news using Hip Hop.

Graphic Recording by Ann M. Jess, www.thedoodlebiz.com


Joining the session via Skype, next up was Jan Shaffer, Executive Director of J-Lab, a “journalism catalyst” that funds new approaches to journalism, researches what works and shares insights gained from years of working with news creators and news gatherers. Jan spoke to the emerging role in media of “civic catalysts,” such as civic volunteers, PTA presidents and operators of community listservs.  (A transcript of her remarks follows.)

Graphic Recording by Ann M. Jess, www.thedoodlebiz.com


Mike Fancher completed setting the stage with examples of civic catalysts in action. The essence of journalism for a networked world is experimentation, collaboration and public engagement. It involves:

  • Public, private and non-profit media networking together.
  • Established and emerging news organizations cooperating and co-creating content.
  • Journalism being done outside traditional places, including within civic organizations and institutions such as libraries and universities.
  • Partnerships between journalists and the people they are meant to serve.

Examples are listed in his remarks below.



Presentation by Jan Schaffer

J-Lab Director (www.j-lab.org)

Oct. 12, 2012

Thank you for having me and I wish I could be there with you today in Seattle.   But I am teaching a class in media entrepreneurship tomorrow that I believe could just as easily be called a class in civic entrepreneurship.

More on that in a second. First, let’s back up for a quick look at the past to see how we got to the present.

As some of you know, I began my work at the intersection of journalism and civic engagement back in the ’90s when I led the Pew Center for Civic Journalism for 10 years.  We asked then whether it was possible for journalism to engage their communities in dialogue that would help them arrive at visions for their community or solutions to community problems.

The short answer was: YES, unequivocably, that was possible.

It made the journalism better and it made the communities better. When the journalism engages community in solutions, you can achieve consensus and solutions.  And you don’t have to be pollyana-ish about it.

Indeed, a prevailing irony in those days was that if you sent a reporter to a municipal meeting where every one actually agreed on something, they’d come back and tell their editor: There was no story.  Journalistic conventions had come to value conflict, not consensus.

Not we’re talking only some 15-17 years ago.  Engagement and dialogue then was face-to-face: Town hall meetings, and focus groups.  This was really pre-Internet.

Fast forward to the present.  We now see that the nature of engagement has changed.  The nature – and some of the conventions – of journalism are changing.  And even who can be a journalist has changed.

As important, People can participate in community news and information in many new, and interactive ways — through Twitter, Facebook, Pinterist –  and creating their own community news sites.

I would assert that increasing, and especially on the community level, the people who are stepping up to the plate to provide news and information in communities that traditional news organizations have left behind are the people that Richard Harwood as termed “civic catalysts.”

They have been the civic volunteers, the PTA presidents and the operators of community listservs.  Many are empty-nesters and baby boomers who are ready for an “Encore Career.” And, increasingly they are finding they can continue their participation in civic life in a new venue: through the media because the barriers of entry are so low.

These people have long been the civic bumblebees in their communities, pollinating one group after another.

Now they are bringing their significant institutional knowledge to bear on news and information.  But frankly their motivations are a little different than traditional journalists. They are not just focused on COVERING community, they are interested in  BUILDING it as well.  They want impact and outcomes

So how are they fitting into the emerging journalism ecosystem?

We see several trends.

ž Smaller and smaller news outlets are having  bigger  and bigger impact

ž Independent news startups are covering state, community and topic-based news .

ž So-called Soft Advocacy, or mission-driven, news sites are emerging to cover such issues as health, the environment or public schools.

ž Universities are cresting genuine news sites that cover their communties.

ž Collaboration and partnerships, instead of competition, amoung various community startups. (We’re about issue a big report on that next month.)

ž Non-narrative journalism emerging with such story-building tools as  Storify, Twitter, Databases, Comics Journalism.

ž Tech sites as media makers

The civic catalysts who are becoming media entrepreneurs are:

1) Creating community news sites.  Look at NewCastleNOW.org in Chappaqua, NY,  a very robust news site launched by women who were PTA leaders when their kids were in school. They’ve earned credibility and now cooperation from school and town leaders .

2) Look at the The Forum (forumhome.org) in Deerfield, NH, a place that had no community coverage for years and founded by a group of volunteers led by retired schoolteacher Maureen Mann.

3) Or check out The Austin Bulldog (TheAustinBulldog.org)  by Ken Martin, which keeps nipping at the heels of officials in the Austin, TX. area.

They are creating university-affiliated sites:

4) Great Lakes Echo, out of Michigan State, founded by Dave Poulson, is covering major environmental issues in the Great Lakes Region.

They are creating topic-specific sites:

5) Jean Pinder, a former NY Times journalist, has launched ClearHealthCosts.com, gathering data for health consumers in cities around the country to compare the actual costs of discrete medical procedures in their communities — and the differences in costs can be thousands of dollars.

And they are creating mission-driven sites.

6) Check out The Notebook.org, which covers public education in Philadelphia with a lot of journalism DNA – but from a standpoint of advocating for good public schools.

I funded many of these with small amounts of seed funding — and these media entrepreneurs took it from there.

I do believe that the kinds of journalism emerging from these people is different… more in-service to their communities, and looking for a different kind of impact — other than winning a journalism prize.

It is a media entrepreneurship that triggers new kinds of dialogue.  And some communities are showing their appreciation of this kind of stewardship by urging the founders of these media sites to RUN FOR OFFICE.

Maureen Mann at the The Forum was asked to run for State Rep. and won. Gordon Joseloff of Westport.Now in Connecticut did a stint as mayor.

That is a new kind of impact for journalism.

Thank you.



Presentation by Mike Fancher

Oct. 12, 2012

The context for my remarks is writing I’ve done for the Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute. I was on the team that in 2009 wrote “Informing Communities:
Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, the report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.” In 2011 I authored “Re-imagining Journalism: Local News for a Networked World,” a paper on how to implement the commission’s ideas about journalism in local communities.

The Knight Commission’s charge was to answer three questions:

  • What are the information needs of communities?
  • How well are they being met?
  • How could they be better served?

In answering the first question, the Commission said, “America needs ‘informed communities,’ places where the information ecology meets people’s personal and civic information needs. This means people have the news and information they need to take advantage of life’s opportunities for themselves and their families. They need information to participate fully in our system of self-government, to stand up and be heard. Driving this vision are the critical democratic values of openness, inclusion, participation, empowerment, and the common pursuit of truth and the public interest.”

To the second question it said, “Public testimony before the Commission showed that America’s communities have vast information needs. Those needs are being met unequally, community by community. Some populations have access to local news and other relevant information through daily newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, local cable news channels, hyper-local Web sites, services that connect to police reports and other sources of local information, blogs, and mobile alerts. Others are unserved or are woefully underserved.”

What should be done? The commission suggested:

  • Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to all Americans and their communities;
  • Strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information
  • Promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.

The Commission also made several counter-intuitive assertions:

  • This is a moment of journalistic opportunity.
  • From the standpoint of public need, the challenge is not to preserve any particular medium. It is to promote the traditional public service functions of journalism.
  • Journalistic institutions do not need saving, they need creating.
  • This will require experimentation and will include for-profit, non-profit and public models. Universities, other community institutions and the public should participate in these experiments.

The Commission posed a central question: How can we advance quality, skilled journalism that contributes to healthy information ecologies in local communities?

My paper on “re-imaging journalism” tried to provide some answers to that question. I concluded the most important word in the question was “we,” because it suggested that all of us – citizens, journalists, civic and government leaders, educators – have a role to play.

If the purpose of journalism in America is to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing, then everyone has a stake in the future of local journalism. And, with emerging communication technologies, everyone can have opportunities to help create journalism that is better, more accurate, more thorough, more diverse and more trusted than ever.

The paper’s fundamental premise was this: If journalism did not exist today, it would not be created in the form that it has been practiced for the past century.

The values, functions and purposes of journalism are as important as ever, but journalism must be re-invented as an interactive endeavor if it is to remain relevant and accountable.

The old paradigm of professional journalism was mostly limited to gathering, processing and distributing news. The new paradigm adds the elements of curating information, as well as connecting, convening, engaging and enabling people to participate as full partners in journalism.

This brings us to journalism’s role in a civic infrastructure. Private media will not likely fully restore their lost journalistic resources in the near future, if ever. Their best hope to expand their journalistic service is through networking. Many mainstream news organizations are leading the way by partnering with each other and with emerging media, both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. These affiliations need to be accelerated in both content and revenue generation.

And, it is increasingly clear that the traditional functions of journalism can and will be performed outside of traditional news organizations. The critical questions concern how good this new journalism will be, what values and standards it upholds and what public service it provides. Professional journalists and journalism educators should embrace this reality and help make the most of it.

Professional journalists should leverage their knowledge and skills by helping citizens participate in the functions of journalism. Likewise, they should aggressively adopt the best practices for crowdsourcing and user-generated content.

With appropriate training and resources, local non-profits could help their communities by performing some functions of journalism. The public should be encouraged to participate in shaping the future of local journalism. Newspapers would do well to bring their readers, viewers and listeners into these conversations.

Explore new ways to achieve diversity. In light of the interactivity that is possible with digital communications technology, legacy news organizations need to rethink how they can enhance diversity efforts to better serve all parts of their communities.

The essence of journalism for a networked world is experimentation, collaboration and public engagement. It requires a partnership between journalists and the people they are meant to serve.

Here are some examples just in the Greater Seattle area:

The Seattle Times operates a News Partner Network with some 50 online sites that includes local news blogs, ethnic media and “life blogs,” ranging from gardening to sailing to bicycling. http://seattletimes.com/flatpages/local/newspartners/localnewssites.html?from=stnvpg1

Seattle CityClub, a network of citizens, partnered with the University of Washington’s Center for Community and Civic Engagement to create a “Living Voter’s Guide.” The Seattle Public Library joined the partnership to provide fact checking of comments posted on the guide. http://www.seattlecityclub.org/lvg

The Common Language Project (CLP), foundeded by three aspiring Seattle journalists, is the online news arm of a non-profit multimedia journalism organization housed in the University of Washington’s Department of Communication.  It works in international reporting, local reporting and journalism education, including digital media literacy.


The Seattle Globalist is a “hyperglobal” blog focused on global connections in Seattle. It is partnership of the CLP, the UW Department of Communication and Brown Paper Tickets. http://www.seattleglobalist.com/about-the-globalist

The Public Data Ferret is a Seattle-based non-profit that “serves as a knowledge base for stake-holders, a news source, and teaching tool. It is also a platform for innovation and experimentation in online news.”


InvestigateWest was founded in July 2009, after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped publishing its printed newspaper. It is a nonprofit organization dedicated to investigative and narrative journalism http://invw.org/

MOVE – Mapping Our Voices for Equality is a grassroots community engagement website that showcases multilingual digital stories produced by community members and a local map that illustrates policies that are improving public health. “Our vision is for communities disproportionately impacted by policy decisions to have the capacity to produce, disseminate, and utilize culturally and linguistically relevant digital stories to increase equity.” To this end, it also conducts educational workshops and public forums.http://www.mappingvoices.org/

Seattle Transit Blog is a non-profit organization that covers transit news for the greater Seattle area. Started in 2007, its contributors appear to be non-journalists who are trained in, have worked in or otherwise simply love various aspects of transit. http://seattletransitblog.com/

Seattle Bubble is a blog about the Seattle area real estate market. It was founded by Tim Ellis, who has a background in engineering and Internet technology. The site is loaded with data. http://seattlebubble.com/blog/2005/08/16/about-the-blogger/

Community news sites abound in Seattle, many founded by longtime journalists. Notable among these is Next Door Media, a network of about a dozen news sites. http://www.nextdoormedia.com/about/

* The following is from the Knight Commission report on the information needs of communities:

The Knight Commission said a healthy democratic community is an “informed community”—when:

  • People have convenient access to both civic and life-enhancing information, without regard to income or social status.
  • Journalism is abundant in many forms and accessible through many convenient platforms.
  • Government is open and transparent.
  • People have affordable high-speed Internet service wherever and whenever they want and need it.
  • Digital and media literacy are widely taught in schools, public libraries and other community centers.
  • Technological and civic expertise is shared across the generations.
  • Local media—including print, broadcast, and online media—reflect the issues, events, experiences and ideas of the entire community.
  • People have a deep understanding of the role of free speech and free press rights in maintaining a democratic community.
  • Citizens are active in acquiring and sharing knowledge both within and across social networks.
  • People can assess and track changes in the information health of their communities.