Meeting Report

Journalism That Matters:

The New News Ecology

April 19-22, 2006

Facilitated by: Peggy Holman and Stephen Silha

Executive Summary

On April 19-22, 2006, twenty-two people passionate about journalism – professionals from print, broadcast, new media, both mainstream and independent, citizens, educators, a funder and a student – convened in St. Louis to consider “What is the next newsroom and how do we create it?”

Filled with rich, multi-textured, and creative conversations, personal shifts from despair to hope occurred for many participants. Sufficient clarity emerged to describe not the “next newsroom”, but rather, a new “news ecology”.  This articulation holds the promise of providing inspiration and direction for an industry in crisis.  Also significant, given that a key intention of this meeting was to produce fundable proposals, a remarkable 11 of the 16 final-day participants identified projects they intend to pursue, including efforts in West Oakland, CA and Atwater, MN along with several ideas intended to accelerate the growth of this new eco-system of journalism, such as a handbook for media transformation and a program for creating change in newsrooms.  While we are under no illusion that all of these projects will come to fruition, given the roles and commitment of the participants, we expect many will find traction and funding.

By metaphorically removing the newsroom walls and taking the journalist out of the cube, the qualities of the new news ecology that surfaced include:

Journalism as…
lecture conversation
low tolerance for experimentation (like peanut butter in the fridge; it doesn’t move) community of innovation
central authority community connector
knowledge-centric relationship-centric
one-to-many many-to-many
profit-driven mission-driven
Journalist as…
outsider community member
lone wolf collaborative partner
gatekeeper sense-maker
focused on the external world focused on their inner life and the external world
expert, arbiter of truth coordinator, facilitator, convener, evaluator, refiner
professional, dispassionate professional and citizen, passion in the mix
content creator content creator and guide
Content that…
arouses inspires engagement
publisher owns and creates public owns and creates
answers who, what when, where, why and how contextualizes purpose – why the audience should care – and answers who, what when, where, why and how
pours around the ads serves a greater good
follows the inverted pyramid edited for readability, not style
Stories sourced…
from within the news organization from many people and places
are deadline driven are continually unfolding
Dissemination of stories…
media specific multi-purpose (e.g., print, broadcast, web, podcast, cell phone, etc.)
ad supported multiple sources of support
high cost of production and distribution low-cost distribution
most of the cost is not journalism costs mostly journalism related

Detailed reports written by the participants provide more depth (see the appendix).


An April, 2005 journalism probe at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, MI prepared the soil for this meeting by framing the future of journalism around the power of storytelling to create healthy communities.  Specifically:

Cultivating “healthy journalists”, renewing the inner life of the journalist;

Preparing the next generation, with an eye towards the emerging citizen journalist; and

Inventing a new economic model. As one participant put it, “Rather than further compromise the work, it’s time to separate journalism from its current funding sources and find a new model.”

The seeds planted in April took root in October, 2005, articulating themes that began to define the “next newsroom”:

  • Journalism as a conversation – a groundbreaking shift from journalism as a lecture;
  • Shaping a new “master narrative”— Recovering the mythic story of journalists as conveners and navigators through a changing world prepares them to support communities in shaping a new national “master narrative” for our times.
  • High tech/high touch journalism – Whether on the web or in the café, new storytelling forms are emerging that engage us on cell phones and iPods, and in gathering places with food, music and the arts; and
  • Ready, Fire, Aim – A strategy of “just do it,” moving from idea (ready) to implementation (fire) without months of planning (aim).

With these ideas firmly rooted, the April, 2006 meeting began with this purpose:

  • To define and refine projects (some already begun, some in planning), shape proposals, and explore possibilities for new journalistic experiments that aim to create healthy communities of engaged citizens.
  • To continue developing a community of practice engaged in developing the “next newsroom”– to share learnings and speed reinvention of journalism, communities, and philanthropy.

Participants included delegations from West Oakland, rural Minnesota and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.  While the Missouri School of Journalism was our host, faced with pressing issues outside of this meeting, most of their participants left early.  In spite of their absence and with their good wishes, the gathering blossomed with a new clarity about the emerging news ecology and how to grow it.

What We Learned

This April gathering affirmed the essential core of journalism – equipping people to make informed choices about what matters to them, individually and as a community.  It recognized that the means to accomplish its purpose is changing dramatically.  An “integral” approach (i.e., engaging the interior and exterior aspects of individuals and the collective) to news and to changing the culture of news organizations surfaced through these themes:

What We Learned in Greater Depth

Nourishing the inner life of the journalist  – connecting to purpose

What does it mean to get back to that inner journalist – “who we were when we started out in the business – passionate, open-minded, desiring to change the world…”

This theme surfaced at the original gathering sponsored by Fetzer Institute in April 2005.  It has continued to play a differentiating role in Journalism that Matters meetings.  Participants consistently express their own sense of renewal at the close of the gathering:

“[I’ve] come in out of the cold after years of wondering who else cares about the future of journalism.”

“Going back with clear sense of purpose of [my] work as a journalist”

“I feel much more optimistic about the future of journalism and empowered to go home and do something at the local level.”

“I’m feeling much more light hearted in general.  After three years of being ground down, [I] feel like [I] have a new community to start sharing with. It feels sustainable!”

“More hopeful about the future of journalism, like [I] have taken the first step out of [my] rut.”

“[I] had checked out at home. [I] had lost respect for the profession. But realize now [I] have a responsibility for making it different.  So I’m not checked out anymore.”

In addition, several projects emerged which ensure this dimension continues to be supported:

From “Bringing Journalism that Matters to Media Giraffe Project”

“…people trying to internally get their emotions and their intellect around what they can do to deal with the pressures and changes rather than have it be overwhelming and getting out of the business. We have to help journalists define why journalism matters, and get in touch with that passion. Too many people in the industry have a sense of not being able to take it anymore, being overworked and stressed out. How do you manage the process of change so it is not catastrophic for you?”

There was a desire to see if Fetzer Institute is interested in pursuing an earlier conversation about “formation” work with journalists.

And from “Creating Change in Newsrooms”

Reflective journalism: Connecting with our passion and purpose
o The course will use exercises, case studies and experience sharing to help journalists connect with their original passion and goals for entering the profession. After reconnecting with the “inner journalist,” participants will be asked to discuss and shape a vision for how to change their news organizations to support the passion and purpose common to those who enter journalism. This will be based on community connection.
o The content on leading change will focus primarily on how people who can become informal leaders of change and the need for change to come from the ranks of news organizations and not from the top down.

Equipping the Next Generation

Partnerships with the emerging citizen journalist and attracting young people into the field were explored in many sessions.

Existing models, for example, the volunteers at KAXE, provided working illustrations of successful citizen involvement.  The University of Missouri’s approach to training professionals was characterized by one participant as “experiential, relevant, service-oriented, and adaptive”.

A key insight into involving young people: …create resources for their voices to be seen and heard, whether through comments, blogs, vlogs, or creating their own stories.”

A wide variety of ideas for attracting young people and citizen journalists were discussed.  Some examples:

  • Foster excitement in journalism by forming partnerships with organizations right in the community, such as the Boys and Girls Club. Go in there and start a newsletter, and by showing kids how powerful this medium can be, you may turn someone on to journalism that would have never considered it as a career path.
  • If someone has an idea, for a radio show, give them a 5-10 minute spot. Let them do it, then ask How did it go? You don’t have to commit to a long-term program …. Can it be sustained? …. Just do it once, and if it works, do it again …. 4-5 times, and then you’ll know if this should continue.
  • A journalism festival, where we call young people to action and bring working journalists together with youth and elders to get people excited about going into journalism.
  • A pilot class in the fall called “Citizen Journalism and Community” at the University of Kansas, with the idea of developing it into a proposal to seek funding for a broader curriculum project.

Sense-making: Storytelling that Engages – Staying True to Mission

Whatever the economics, delivery technologies, or changing roles, journalism as sense-making remains a central and sacred responsibility.  Journalists play a key role in shaping the “master narrative” that informs our collective story.   Telling stories “that empower audiences rather than discourage them” is a skill for our times.  Whether citizen journalist or professional, inspiring audience to ask, “how do I get involved?” fulfills a journalistic mission.  One participant spoke about beginning stories by answering the question, “why should you care?”  In doing so, zoning, a deadly dull yet vitally important civic issue comes to life.  A video about Public Insight Journalism at Minnesota Public Radio provided multiple examples of citizens inspired to get involved as a result of engaging stories where their experience fit in.

While no one term was found, journalist as teacher of civics, convener of conversations, connector to sources, facilitator, among other roles, surfaced.  Each of these roles serves its audience in making sense of their world.  The role of audiences was also explored:

Citizens are out of practice at “consuming” watchdog journalism. They don’t see it that often, they don’t know always how to recognize it or how to demand it. There is a need for the teaching of smart media consumption and creation.  Who has that role? State curriculum frameworks mandate the teaching of “civic education” and our schools claim to be about graduating good citizens, but they really are teaching to tests and the tests are more oriented to job skills. Thomas Jefferson was quoted as saying schools were about providing people sufficiently educated to be effective citizens in democratic process. Don’t journalists have some obligation – out of necessity – to make sure their customers know how to identify and use the product in a civic context?

The Creating Change in Newsrooms project specifically intends to address the how journalists engage their audience:
A  course to look at journalism within its purpose of engaging the audience. It will help participants tie the goals they embrace for journalism with the community connection needed to achieve those goals. In particular, it will shape a new perspective on the impact of various types of reporting. Its aim will be to provide “an appreciative lens for hard news” that empowers audiences rather than discourages them.

Journalism as Community Network

From the opening evening, when the “next newsroom” was recast as the “new news ecology”, a “newsroom without walls, integrated into the community” was embraced as the emerging future.  With several successful experiments in the room — and the Missourian’s — emerging trends in community engagement generated substantial interest and ideas.

Multiple sessions offered “tours” through highly successful web sites, successful because they involve people in creating and sharing information that matters to them.  For example:,,, and

Side by side with the emerging new media world were numerous discussions about values essential to journalism – providing information that impacts civic affairs, holding powerful people accountable, being a synthesizer of the truth.

The benefits of a “’both/and’ journalism, that expands to allow more voices and informs the professional side of the business in a new way,” surfaced.  To embrace what is new and of service while retaining the essential core of journalism’s mission was an undercurrent throughout the gathering.  As one participant reflected after the conference:

“I’ve been in “community journalism” for 25 years, but the discussions around that subject helped me hone my focus and purpose, refresh my attitude, and rededicate myself to producing the highest standards of the form.”

A community network is a natural response to this “both/and” journalism.  It invites journalism as a conversation blurring the line between audience and journalist, while connecting them as members of the same community.  In a post-conference musing, one participant put it this way:

What we’re going through now is a sociological change in the way news organizations and journalists relate to the public (and vice versa) …

This gives further support to ridding journalism of the notion reporters are detached flies on the wall, and gives support to us embracing our humanity AND possessing the skills to offer appropriate balance and fairness as opposed to objectivity.

While no clear answer emerged for handling the large, tough stories, the critical importance of “powerful journalistic organizations holding powerful people accountable” was expressed.  Whether the emerging models are a few large organizations, a strong network of smaller organizations, or, more likely, some combination remains to be seen.

Conversations about the economics of journalism wove through discussions of community networks.  Why did these seemingly disparate aspects continue to intermingle?  Perhaps, because, as one participant put it:

The economic underpinnings for quality journalism are shifting. So much is moving online. The ad model, even if it fully transfers on line, there are more players in it, so the actual money that goes to journalism is going to diminish dramatically. As we try to figure out new ways to involve citizens, we need to be open to a whole new range of ways of finding revenue. This discussion is about being able to understand what the experiments are only in the sense of we don’t know what the new world is but if we can track experiments, it gives us a leg up.

No clear model has yet gelled, though some characteristics are beginning to surface:

  • Part of the new economy is that we all need each other. No one outlet can provide everything to everyone.  A mix of niche players and larger outlets that provide pointers to vetted partners is one possibility.  Journalism as connector requires a shift not only in how news is gathered and delivered but in the economic relationships that support it.
  • Revenues improve with multi-media news outlets.  The Village Soup example began life online then migrated to paper.  With the additional form, audience and revenue for both vehicles increased.  (Like grapes, news is best served in bunches.)
  • Revenues come from multiple sources.  There is still a role for ad revenue.  In fact, online ads provide attractive possibilities of multi-layered information (such as real estate ads where you can “tour” a house) not possible in print.  Other sources include: mission-based investors – not looking for a market rate of return, foundations, and subscriptions for content.
  • Treat information as inventory.  The Village Soup provided a service to audience while uncovering a new revenue source by making a business’ inventory, whether menus or items available in the store, open for viewing.  They took a traditional relationship and enhanced its value.

With Richard Anderson’s offer of making the Village Soup platform available to others, several projects were identified:

Atwater Soup and Westside Soup (in West Oakland) are two projects with promising futures.  Included in these experiments were: a satellite office, a mobile unit staffed with professional interns, a center for community members young and old to meet.

In addition to these ambitious possibilities, with a shift in orientation to community network, many simple-to-implement ideas surfaced.  For example, being an aggregator of links to church bulletins, interest group newsletters, or other sources that provide opportunities for new partnerships in the community.

The need for universal access was touched upon, as information migrates more and more to electronic forms.

One session uncovered a powerful insight by looking at the issues facing communities from the inside out:  “We concluded, as a newsroom family, we must consistently address amongst ourselves the very struggles that exist outside the newsroom. In doing so, we better ourselves and the coverage of our communities.”

The Sweet Spot: Community of Innovation

From many experiments, the new ecology shall emerge.  As journalism strives to bring together the communities in which it serves, so can this new ecology foster a spirit of experimentation and mutual learning.  Imagine a “greenhousing” organization that supports innovation and sharing among news organizations.  From urban West Oakland to rural Atwater, relationships were created at this gathering providing the nascent seeds of change.

A first next step will occur the end of June:

The Media Giraffe Project could be an incubator for the Village Soup Commons to get established. Village Soup Commons – that is a way to connect West Oakland and Atwater.

The other piece is we’re going to create this real live kit that includes the content management software, the consulting of how you do it and network if you want to be an entrepreneur. A toolkit for you to be a new media entrepreneur.

About the Process

The process used for this gathering brought a powerful sense of renewal to participants identifying both individual and collective possibilities for action.  Many participants noted how effectively it engaged them on multiple levels – individual and collective, their inner life and their outer world.

The essential principle of the process is an invitation for participants to take responsibility for what they love.  In doing so, they consistently reconnect with their own internal passions and they discover that collectively, no matter how different they seem to each other, they care about the same core ideals.  This discovery reconnects people to the larger whole, while celebrating the uniqueness of each individual.

The Approach

The process began with personal invitations from the October meeting participants.  The willingness of busy people to take the time and reach out to their networks is a testament to the commitment generated by this approach.  Because the invitations came from trusted associates, we were able to bring together the diverse spectrum of the industry.

Once identified, participants were paired to do an appreciative interview with each other by telephone before the gathering, serving multiple purposes:

– to understand the rich diversity of perspectives and experiences they brought to the subject (including a few participants who could not be there);

– to develop relationships among them;

– to build on the themes from the previous gatherings; and

– to energize the meeting by jump-starting the reflections and conversations.

Participants shared summaries of their interviews with each other.  Bios were also provided, helping people understand the depth and breadth of their collective experience.

The first evening started with each participant speaking to why they came.  A “Samoan Circle” followed.  This variant of a fishbowl with four chairs in the center of a circle of chairs began with some of the October participants in the center.  Anyone who wished to join them was invited to take a center chair as space opened to discuss the convening question: “What is the next newsroom and how do we create it?”  This process provided an interactive means of sharing (most participants spoke) and building on the information gleaned from the previous gatherings.  It set a tone that the conference had a solid foundation that could be built upon through the expertise in the room.  It also changed the focus from newsroom to news ecology for the rest of the session, a tribute to the responsiveness of the form to assimilate important ideas quickly.

The core process during the face-to-face time was Open Space Technology (OST).  The basic pattern of OST is an invitation for people to host breakout sessions on topics of personal interest within the conference theme: “What is the next news ecology and how do we create it?”  When held over three days, OST follows a predictable self-organized trajectory: a day of angst for the current situation (day 1), an exploration of what’s desired (day 2), and tangible ideas to create a better future (day 3).  All without a facilitator telling anyone what to do.  (This gathering was unique in that the first day focused principally on developing a deeper understanding of the new news ecology, with little frustration present.)

OST’s effectiveness originates from its integral nature, simultaneously engaging…

…the inner, authentic presence of participants and

…their outer, professional selves;

…the inner stories that form the “master narrative” of a culture, and

…the outer activities of collective daily life.

A report of the sessions was created on a web site established for that purpose.  The session notes were written by participants (see appendix).

Next Steps

The conference succeeded in generating diverse project ideas and the momentum for pursuing them.  While further work is in the hands of their originators, the relationships among participants will provide mutual support as they proceed. Projects identified by participants were of three varieties:

  • Demonstration models for the new news ecology
    • Westside Soup (West Oakland)
    • Atwater Soup
    • The Village Soup Commons
  • Strategies for accelerating the growth of the new ecology
    • Creating a handbook for media transformation – an integral approach
    • Inner journalist training for change agents
    • Journalism that Matters at the Media Giraffe Project conference
  • Preparing a new generation of professional and citizen journalists
    • Youth Journalism: West Oakland to Atwater and Back
    • Curriculum for the New News Ecology (e.g., “Citizen Journalism and Community”)

Finding a home for Journalism that Matters itself could provide the “greenhouse support” for sharing learning among these efforts.  Several possible sites emerged to pursue.