A Systems Approach to Remaking Journalism

What if we asked not what new business model journalism needs to survive, but instead what kinds of journalism our communities need to thrive? A similar question starts Jonathan Stray’s recent blog post “Journalism for Makers”:

“I find myself wondering what it would take to fix the global financial system, but most financial journalism doesn’t help me to answer this question. Something seems wrong here. The modern world is built on a series of vast systems, intricate combinations of people and machines, but our journalism isn’t really built to help us understand them. It’s not a journalism for the people who will put together the next generation of civic institutions.”

For Stray, too much contemporary journalism is either “in service to the status quo” or represented by a “zealous suspicion of power.” Neither of these frameworks for journalism encourage deep engagement with systems, Stray argues. He proposes a different framework, drawing on the participatory values of “maker culture” (see for example Make magazine): “Geeks who like to understand very complex systems, and tinker with them.” Journalism today lacks that drive to tinker, to fix, to make better, which is rooted in the complex intersection of a desire to know (expertise) and a desire to change. “Where is the journalism for the idealist doer with a burning curiosity?” he asks.

As someone who dabbles in and has a deep appreciation for the maker communities that Stray references, I like the idea of infusing journalism with a maker ethos. To be sure, there are those out there who already embody the values that Stray describes. But I am left wondering, how do we create a cultural shift to better equip and inspire people to do the kind of journalism Stray describes?

From Makers to Systems

At the root of Stray’s “journalism for makers” is a way of thinking, not just a way of doing. Stray’s point is that the most critical issues facing our communities, our country and our world are problems of systems. What Stray appreciates about maker culture is the willingness to become experts of a system, and then use that expertise to change the system.

Like the maker culture that Stray emphasizes, “systems thinking” is focused on problem solving and emphasizes the relationships between parts of a system. Some within journalism have started to make the shift towards systems thinking. Take for example the increased interest in mapping and understanding a community’s “news ecosystem” and the growing trend of networked journalism projects.

It’s worth considering another field that has already made the shift towards an epistemology of systems: ecology. For a long time, environmental science and activism, was rooted in specialization and specificity. However, as ecologists came to understand the deep interconnections and relationships in the natural world, they were forced to shift from thinking in categories to thinking in systems. This shift is perhaps best represented by “watershed” science that explores all the human and man-made systems which intersect with a community’s water source.

The Center for Ecoliteracy notes, “Thinking systemically requires several shifts in perception, which lead in turn to… different ways to organize institutions and society. These shifts are not either/or alternatives, but rather movements along a continuum.” They lis six shifts in perception that are necessary to think in terms of systems, and many have resonance in the shifting landscape of media and journalism:

  1. From parts to the whole
  2. From objects to relationships
  3. From objective knowledge to contextual knowledge
  4. From quantity to quality
  5. From structure to process
  6. From contents to patterns

Building Networks to Help Change Systems

Too often, debates over the future of journalism, become laser focused on a single new idea or tool: an individual business model, a new gadget, a proposed government policy. Taken alone no one new idea is going to redefine journalism. It will necessarily be a network, a system of ideas, working both in concert and in opposition to each other that eventually helps reshape and renew journalism.

We need people who can connect the dots, and shift our perception, but we also need structures that can help us do this.

That’s why I have been so excited about some of the journalism networks that are emerging to help connect newsrooms and foster lasting change at the systemic level. One great example of this is the Block by Block network which just wrapped up its annual event this weekend. There, and on Twitter and email, journalists and news entrepreneurs take a holistic, pragmatic and decidedly “maker” approach building the next generation of community journalism. To use Stray’s words, they embody “a theory of civic participation [and/or journalism] based on empowering the people who like to get their hands dirty tinkering with the future.” Take a look at the Media Consortium’s 2009 report “The Big Thaw” for other examples of dynamic systems thinking in journalism. But we need more.

At its most basic, system’s thinking helps us think big without losing sight of the web of relationships between all the parts. It’s not enough to tinker around the edges, it’s not a time for incrementalism. Makers, hackers, systems, networks – regardless of the models or metaphors we use, it’s clear that the future calls on us to be full participants in creating the journalism and the communities we want to see.


  1. Josh says:

    Over here: http://chanders.tumblr.com/post/10862368629/beware-of-journalists-bearing-solutions

    C.W. Anderson asks “By what right, and on what grounds, do journalists claim the authority to offer solutions to any particularly difficult problem? Journalists are neither elected, nor particularly accountable, nor all that expert in anything in particular.”

    Which is an interesting take on Stray’s point, which for me was less about claiming authority to offer solutions and more about a willingness to provide the insight and context to help discover solutions. Though as I reread even my own piece, I see myself being sloppy about that distinction.

    That’s why I think the notion of system’s thinking is so important. It should not be about journalists in a silo, developing solutions, but journalists as part of a system (or community, or network) engaging with community towards discovering and creating solutions.

  2. To start, we should do less talking and more doing. Isn’t that the maker culture? In journalism, there’s a saying “show, don’t tell.” So if you think journalism is broken, fix it. Start a news site. Do something. Quit with the shouting from the pulpit and roll up your sleeves and dig into the muck. There’s plenty of innovation going on. If you go to the Online News Association’s annual conference, you’ll come away amazed by all the bright ideas in journalism today.

    1. Josh says:

      @Lalorek – Not sure the post above qualifies as “shouting from the pulpit” – nor was I complaining about a lack of innovation. I agree that there are plenty of “bright ideas” in journalism (see also my post on why I’m optimistic about the future of local journalism https://stearns.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/be-the-journalism/) but as I note in my post – bright ideas in isolation are not enough.

      I think it is worthwhile for people to think about the kind of media we want for our communities, but that doesn’t stand in opposition to actually getting out and rolling up our sleeves. It is not an either or, we can have a thoughtful debate about the work while we are busy doing it. In fact, I think conferences like ONA are vital because they do just that – carve out space for people who are usually to busy doing the work to take a step back and learn from each other.

      When it comes to fighting for better media and trying to work with people to create it – my sleeves are rolled up. You can find out more about what I do at http://www.freepress.net and http://www.savethenews.org.

      1. Josh, thank you for your response
        I guess my comment came off as critical of your remarks and it wasn’t meant to be. I agree with you.
        I have followed what you have done. Your actions do speak louder than words in “being the change you want to see in this world.” I applaud you.
        I want more people to take action. It’s hard for some journalists to leave the safety of a traditional news organization and become an entrepreneur. But it’s essential to keep pace with the change in our industry. I want more people to join the maker movement and to create new ways of telling stories online. I’m thrilled to see “skunk works” operations within traditional news organizations like the New York Times R&D Lab http://nytlabs.com/ and The Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Pipeline Project http://shale.sites.post-gazette.com/ And the Hacks/Hackers organizations is a maker’s movement within the journalism industry. I love these projects and I would like to see more of them. That’s what I meant by less talking and more doing.

  3. Josh says:

    @lalorek – It’s also worth checking out what some universities are doing to help in this space – like the Digital Media Test Kitchen in Boulder (http://testkitchen.colorado.edu) and some of the efforts at places like USC Annenberg. ~Best, Josh

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