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 – he mentions one in his blog post and I can think of a number of others, both organizations and individuals. But I am left wondering, how do we create a cultural shift, or take advantage of the cultural shift already occurring in newsrooms, to better equip and inspire people to do that kind of journalism Stray describes?
At the root of Stray’s “journalism for makers” is a way of thinking, not just a way of doing. Stray’s whole point – made clearly in the passage quoted above – 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.
Nonetheless, 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:
- From parts to the whole
- From objects to relationships
- From objective knowledge to contextual knowledge
- From quantity to quality
- From structure to process
- From contents to patterns
A shift towards systems thinking in journalism may inspire more of the kind of journalism that Stray advocates for in his piece, but it may have another unintended consequence. I agree with Stray that as a society we need journalism that better understands, reports on and responds to social, political, economic, ecological and other systems. But for those of us concerned with the future of journalism, we have to also understand that the media is also just one such system. And in fact, even a single news organization is a complex system itself.
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 help 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.
The oft mentioned Albert Einstein quote seems apt here: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” 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.