An Architectural Framework for Public Life

I have been increasingly interested in the connection between the civic health and the information infrastructure of our communities. The intersection of these two ideas raises important questions about the role of journalists and news organizations in constructing civic discourse and civic spaces – both real and virtual.

For those interested in this line of thought, Megan Garber’s post “Energy-efficient journalism — urban planning for news” over at the Nieman Journalism Lab is a must read. She uses urban planning and architecture as a metaphor for how we might construct the future of journalism. One thing I found attractive about the vision she describes is the way in which it aspires to be comprehensive (she describes the project that inspired her approach as “An approach to civic space that is strategically comprehensive — the product not merely of collective efforts, but of collaborative ones.”).

With so much experimentation and so many emergent tools, models, and projects in the journalism space, it is often necessary – and useful – to focus in on one trend, one model, one question. To paraphrase from Garber’s post, this leaves us with a view of journalism and our communities that is full of small pieces, loosely joined.

While we need to inspect the individual elements of this new media ecosystem, we also need to examine the connective tissue that may or may not hold them together and imagine the systems and networks that they could create. This is also perhaps why I was drawn to Jay Rosen’s recent musings about what he calls the “100 percent solution.” When we try to see the big picture it forces us to think about the problem in new ways, to identify what’s missing and to rethink how the pieces all fit together.

If we don’t take a step back to see the big picture, Garber believes we forfeit our ability and abdicate our responsibility to shape the future. That is, we leave it to others who see the gaps we don’t. “Because we need some way to control the crowded content of our own creation, we rely on external engineers — Twitter, Facebook, The Huffington Post, Google News — to impose order on the chaos” Garber writes. “The coders become the curators become the arbiters. The news, as a civic space, ends up outsourcing the design of its own traffic flow.” This is essentially what newspapers have done for years by not investing in innovation and experimentation, and being blindsided when digital entrepreneurs created start-ups that drew audiences and revenue away (or simply served the public better).

What are the concrete strategies for helping see the connections? Garber thinks collaboration is key. Pointing to the ways longstanding news organizations across the world partnered with Wikileaks and each other – each taking a different approach or angle to the documents and each telling a part of the story – as one model. “Collaboration is no longer the province of utopians and/or nerds; increasingly, it’s defining the systems that are, in turn, defining us,” writes Garber. “Just as architecture understands that empty space is its own form of structure, journalism increasingly appreciates that connection — links, relationships, permeable borders — is a kind of content unto itself. Openness is architecture.”

Garber’s post was inspired by an Economist article exploring plans for future “smart cities” where information infrastructure and civic architecture are deeply intertwined. However, we can look both backwards and forwards to find models of openness rooted in the intersection of information and civic life.

In an article on the architecture of the ancient Greek city of Thurii, David Fleming comes to similar conclusions as Garber. At the time the primary information medium was not networks or newspapers, but education and speeches. The rhetoric of the city shaped and was shaped by its streets and town squares. He writes:

“We Americans live essentially without town squares. We have always been nervous about having empty places in the middle of our cities, places dedicated to nothing more substantial than discourse. We feel as if there should be a post office there or a park for repose and relaxation, a place to feed the pigeons. If Joseph Rykwert is right, that the physical fabric of a town is a “tangible representation” of the society that lives in it, we would have to say that our towns lack the architectural framework for a genuinely public life. Now, there is no reason to wax nostalgic about the Greek polis: it will not come again and there are good reasons for not wanting it to. But the idea that I believe animated the Thurii project, the idea that public discourse, public space, and public schooling were intimately connected, and that a free, open, and well-functioning democracy depended on those interconnections, seems worth recalling.”

Both Garber and Fleming emphasize the importance of the connections or interconnections that weave together our civic life and our physical spaces. They both show that urban planning provides a fruitful model and potential metaphor for new kids of community engagement in journalism, news and information.

In addition to the urban planner, it’s worth considering the example of the community organizer. I believe that journalists increasingly need to think of themselves as community organizers. Not so much in the political sense of the word, but more in the traditional notion of people who build relationships and networks throughout a community, spark debate and conversation, and empower communities. If the term community organizer carries with it too much political baggage, perhaps what we are talking about is a civic instigator.

Garber points out the complex paradox of living in a time when there is more information than ever available, and yet so many of our communities are facing a real information crisis. If, as Fleming suggests, we lack the architectural (and I would add information) framework for a genuinely public life, then there are few who are better suited to respond than journalists. Journalists can and do help produce new knowledge and tell new stories – but they can also be the architects and the organizers of a community’s information “traffic flow.”

We need to foster information networks in our communities that are rooted in reciprocity, transparency, and accountability. However, journalists need not and should not do this alone. The idea of journalists as community organizers calls on them to do all of this in partnership with their audience – collectively and collaboratively.

1 Comment

  1. Joy Mayer says:

    Josh, it’s interesting to me that journalists might be uncomfortable thinking of themselves as community organizers. So many of us got into the business because it was our way of making the community better. Watching out for the underdog, sharing peoples’ stories, being a voice for the voiceless. Few of us would disagree with those principles.

    In my interviews, I’ve been asking journalists if they are working to make their communities better. Most say yes, absolutely. Then I rephrase, and ask if they’re serving as advocates for their communities. Only a few have said yes to that one. It implies picking sides.

    Fostering information networks, and serving as information traffic controllers, seems like a way to take a stand on behalf of a community that most journalists would feel comfortable with.

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