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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:

8 thoughts on “An Expanded Purpose for Journalism

  1. Hi, Peggy:

    Great post! As you know, your points express the goals we had for WellCommons.com, the Lawrence Journal-World’s local social journalism health site that we launched in 2009.

    It’s still going strong, albeit with fewer resources than when I was there (I left at the end of 2011). The community regards it as their site, and many people contribute content to it every day. The site changed the conversation about local health from a problem-oriented approach to a solution-oriented approach, and expanded the concept of health from one that involves only the individual to one that’s community-oriented.

    Cheers, Jane

    Jane Stevens
    Founder, editor

  2. Kári Gunnarsson, Reykjavík, Iceland

    I see you are working with journalism. I like to share with you an observation of mine, you can do with it as you please.

    In my small country the state journalism has gone trough a generational renewal and the remarks that I get when speaking about them is that the youth are at disadvantage when doing the critical journalism that is needed in a republic where experience and liberty of not begin afraid of what you say based on future career choices is missing from the state sponsored apparatus.

    • Peggy Holman

      Hi Kari,
      What you’re saying is not just true for younger journalists. I have heard discussions of self-censorship by journalists who fear they will lose access if they criticize those they cover.

      Being state sponsored solves some problems and creates some problems. I suppose that’s an argument for multiple avenues for creating news and information.


      • Kári Gunnarsson

        Hi Peggy,
        The topic of journalism is fascinating to be based on its involvement in shaping our cultural values.

  3. Kevin Fleming

    Hi Peggy,

    I am a graduate student at Colorado State University. I am studying the new role of journalism in today’s modern world.

    As you know, professional journalism is in flux on a global scale. Many organizations have found success in the area of professional information gathering and producing. Your post goes beyond this and argues that journalism needs to take more of an active role in our democracy.

    Recently our local newspaper has taken an interest in an organization run out of the Speech Communications department at CSU. This organization focuses on deliberative public problem solving. It trains undergraduates and members of the community to facilitate public meetings in small groups. The goal is to bring out tensions and discuss them in productive ways that could eventually lead to better solutions.

    This newspaper’s staff wants to incorporate deliberative democracy more into its structure, but no one is really sure how. Other than covering more facilitated events, I think deliberative modes of thinking (as apposed to oppositional and polarizing modes) could have more of a central role in local papers across the country. It could be the new re-branding of journalism’s role in society, but the idea faces many challenges.

    What do you think of this idea? If anywhere, where could deliberative democracy be incorporated into your model?


    Kevin Fleming

    Colorado State University
    Masters Student
    Mass Public Communications and Technology

    • Peggy Holman


      I think the idea of journalists as convening agents to support deliberative democracy is spot on! Wonderful to hear that your local newspaper is working with the university on engaging the public in real world issues.

      Are you involved with the project? I’d be happy to talk with folks at the local paper about how to go about getting more involved with public conversations.

      Journalism That Matters is in conversation with a news association about an initiative to support a variety of pilots for doing just that in different locations around the country.

    • Michelle Ferrier

      Hi Kevin,
      You are spot on with the lack of real training of journalists around the art of engagement. As a former online community hub manager, I found running an online news site much like running a political campaign (I’ve done that too). You’ve got to know how to convene forums that are open, respectful and really listen to your community. We here at Ohio University are exploring what that skills set would look like. Is there someone at your school or at the local newspaper that would be willing to discuss the experiences of the collaboration you’ve formed?

      Dr. Michelle Ferrier
      VP, Journalism That Matters
      Associate Dean for Innovation, Scripps College, Ohio University

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