A project of Democracy Fund

April 29, 2015

Mapping the Intersection of Journalism and Civic Technology


When we put community at the center of our work we discover new connections between journalism and civic technology.

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On April 4 Laurenellen McCann at Smart Chicago hosted a day-long summit on “Experimental Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech” which brought together journalists, programmers, artists and organizers to talk about deep community-driven models of civic action through media and technology. In describing the event, Smart Chicago director Dan O’Neil, wrote that “Each participant works in different contexts, with radically different types of technology, but what unites us is the degree to which our work is done with, not for, the communities we serve.”

After the gathering I did a short email interview about the intersection of journalism and civic technology with two of the journalists who attended: Jennifer Brandel of Curious Nation and Jeremy Hay, a Knight fellow at Stanford.

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Defining Civic Tech Through the Lens of Journalism

Jennifer Brandel:

The word “civic tech” is an odd one. Not everyone at the gathering identified with it (although most people there self-identified as community organizers of some kind), and there was a lot of talk about “civic tech” as a label — its limitations and its utility (e.g., grant writing = good, common parlance = confusing). An illuminating call and response happened at the gathering in which we went around the room and everyone used their own language around the work they’re doing and pretty much no one described what they were doing as “civic tech.” The couple word descriptions people had of their own work were rich, imaginative and varied. To me that was exciting, and yet I can also see how it’s hard to build community and dialogue around those varied terms because inevitably the same issues come up: needing to come up with inclusive definitions for whatever labels are being used.

Jeremy Hay:

After Chicago’s convening I’ve been thinking about civic tech as the ways in which technology high and low is used to engage with communities, the ways community engagement is used to strengthen a community’s tech infrastructure, and the ways technology strengthens a community’s human infrastructure in a way that aids civic resilience and activity. Those definitions were developed for me in Chicago, and I’m grateful because they gave me an additional way to think about what I do.

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Is Journalism Itself A Civic Technology?

Jennifer Brandel:

I came away feeling excited that the work I’ve been doing with Curious Nation and Curious City does fit squarely in Laurenellen’s definition of civic tech, as well as community organizing, as those were both terms that never occurred to me to employ. One of the participants, Whitney May, shared a formula that got stuck in my craw: information + invitation = participation. It felt like the gathering was proof positive of that in action — by learning more about what civic tech means and can include, and being invited to identify with it and use that term, I feel far more likely to pay attention to and participate in other convenings / dialogues labeled as such.

information + invitation = participation

Jeremy Hay:

I was always turned off by the term civic journalism because contributing to and being a part of the civic fabric should already be a key thread in conscientious journalism practice. On the other hand, it’s exciting and seems particularly relevant these days — when technology has so revised journalism’s possibilities while at the same time disrupted its models — to think about civic tech being a strategy or approach used to further good journalism in a way that might also help stabilize and revitalize journalism as an institution.

So, as I came to think about it in Chicago, civic tech (in the context of journalism) is:

  • First an approach that can be used to effectively develop the framework and landscape of a journalistic endeavor — by using tech methods and tools to engage usefully with a community.
  • Second, civic tech can be the framework for a news outlet to engage with and remain usefully entwined with a community, both as an operating system and a beacon that helps maintain its purpose (just as truth and fairness and verification are). Basically, if a media organization consistently engages with the community, works with it to the extent that the community helps define the news and information needs it has that it needs the media organization to meet, that creates a value. That value is one that the media organization holds onto, that it strives to uphold, and then you’ve got a infrastructure of and for civic engagement that is built on an equal footing. That leads to the next:
  • Third, it is a result, one in which a journalistic entity becomes self-consciously a part of the technological infrastructure serving a community.

Thinking about journalism as part of the civic infrastructure’s technology could be a useful way to conceive in contemporary terms of journalism’s actual role. Also, it would be more useful, I now believe, to think about civic tech as an approach to getting to where journalism is an organic aspect of a community’s technological civic infrastructure, rather than appending civic tech to journalism (i.e. as a new form or model of journalism called civic tech journalism or something like that, which just seems faddish and dilutes actual civic tech).

In other, plainer words, civic tech is not journalism, civic tech is an approach/method/set of practices that journalism should make good use of as it strives to situate itself civically and find viable and sustainable models. One good approach might be to come up with a set of principles influenced by civic tech that could be applied to journalism.

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Journalism as a Service

Jennifer Brandel:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about SaaS (Software as a Service) and JaaS (Journalism as a Service — I’m making up this term). My thoughts aren’t fully formed about it all yet, but I think there’s substantial room for inquiry around how journalism is currently construed as a service (instead of a product) and what room it has to grow into that service role more directly. Of course it’s a service to provide information to one’s community, but how directly is that service responding to proven “customer” needs, desires and values at both the newsroom and the story levels?

SaaS (Software as a Service) versus JaaS (Journalism as a Service)

It’s an imperfect metaphor, but I think about the roles of actual servers in restaurants. Their role is to help you get nourishment the way you want it at their establishment and make sure you have a good experience (afterall, some of their pay comes from making you happy, as tips). But most restaurants have a set menu, and don’t always let customers make substitutions. I think of most journalism outlets as not even that flexible / influenceable as most restaurants, newsrooms act more like restaurants with a a prix fixe menu and no substitutions. You get what you get. No real input from the customers.

So then what would the Chipotle of journalism be? A place where consumers know what’s being offered, but they get the chance to influence exactly what they want and get to co-create their meal (story) with the kitchen (newsroom). Patrons would have choices, power and a sense of ownership over the outcome of the meal.

Abandoning this clunky metaphor, this is all to say I think there’s a ton of room to reimagine the service of journalism / journalists and the various ways we can conceive of serving end users / communities.

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Build Journalism With Us

Both the Smart Chicago project and our work at the Local News Lab is funded through grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Laurenellen McCann at Smart Chicago, who facilitated the gathering, has been doing tremendous work documenting the process and helping strengthen practices for building with community. One of the other big takeaways for Brandel was the need to document and codify work being done in this space. “Those who work in tech are used to documenting their work so that anyone can read / learn and utilize the knowledge immediately,” she wrote, “but those of us who are working with less technical, more human-centered processes with abstract concepts need to be equally rigorous in sharing our learnings and making them transferrable.”

For more on defining civic tech through the lens of community see this write-up from the event. And, here is the active listening exercise the participants did to rethink storytelling and break through the barriers of professional jargon across sectors.

We’ve been trying to start that process at the LocalNewsLab.org via our profiles of people who are building journalism with communities. See ourgrowing list of skills and knowledge for building with your community and if you want to help get in touch.

All images by Free Press, used via creative commons. See their full collection of creative commons images here.