Journalism’s Theory of Change: From Community Engagement to Civic Action

In July we learned more about Jim Brady’s new local journalism start-up,, which is taking a networked approach to news in Philly. At USA Today Rem Rieder described the project as having a “strong civic impulse.”

For Brady and Chris Krewson, the site’s editor, community is the starting place. At the Innovate Local conference at Montclair State University earlier this year Brady said that increasingly he wants to effect “our communities through action not just providing information” and he describes not as a news site but as “a platform for a better Philly.”

At one time, this overt emphasis on civic action would have raised red flags for many journalists. But increasingly we are seeing some newsrooms frame their work as a springboard for action. There is evidence of this shift in both nonprofit and commercial newsrooms, as well as a growing number of journalism schools which are explicitly training more community driven and action oriented students.

Screenshot 2014-07-28 14.07.49The Christian Science Monitor just redesigned their site with a major focus on helping people take action. The site features a “Take Action” section and on some stories the Christian Science Monitor offers “paths to action for readers who’ve been inspired by a story or something happening in the world.” My colleague Molly de Aguiar recently profiled Christian Science Monitor and two other publications that are using site design to invite more user engagement.

Also this month, the Knight Foundation awarded a Prototype Fund grant to Chicago’s Public Good Software for the development of a “Do Public Good” button and an outreach campaign designed to “work with bloggers and media organizations to include a capability to take action (‘Do Public Good’) in the context of news articles.”

What is Journalism’s Theory of Change?

A few years ago, Jonathan Stray argued that “journalism has no theory of change.” He wrote, “I’ve taken to asking editors, ‘what do you want your work to change in society?’ The answer is generally along the lines of, ‘we aren’t here to change things. We are only here to publish information.’” But Stray doesn’t accept that answer, arguing, “Journalism without effect does not deserve the special place in democracy that it tries to claim.”

Today, I’d argue that journalism is still grappling to identify its theory of change, but we are beginning to see more experimentation around setting goals and measuring impact. And, just as there is no one business model for news, there is likely no one answer to this question of journalism’s role in making change. Newsrooms and communities have to navigate these questions about engagement together, and define the right focus for their goals.

We are seeing a range of different theories expressed in new practices, new publications and new participants. Jan Schaffer, director of the J-Lab, has suggested a taxonomy of Authoritative, Activist and Advocacy journalism to describe various engaged models of reporting. She wrote recently in a Knight News Challenge application, “The Internet has done more than foster innovative platforms for distributing news and information. It is also leading to fundamental re-definitions of journalism itself… as more than just a commodity, but also as a catalyst to advance engagement and outcomes.”

Action Embedded in Our Mission

We see this renewed focus on outcomes at big newsrooms like ProPublica, whose mission is to “expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing,” to small community media outlets like San Francisco’s People. Power. Media. which “amplifies voices from America’s marginalized communities to empower their efforts to impact public policy on housing, immigration and poverty issues.”

Non-profit newsrooms need to develop clearer theories of change and metrics for measuring impact in part to justify foundation funding. But, the drive to help communities use journalism in improving their neighborhoods is also coming from users themselves. As a recent study shows, readers liked stories more when they offered pathways to solutions, not just descriptions of problems.

On the commercial side, Street Fight just profiled Howard Owens of the Batavian and talked about civic organizations and political fights that were catalyzed by his reporting. And another Philly journalist, Chris Wink, the founder of Philly wrote recently, “We want better communities. Journalism is one tool to get there.” Wink argues that there is a lot involved with building stronger communities that falls outside the parameters of traditional journalism organizations. Indeed, a few years ago a study of news in Chicago found that non-traditional news and information sources, like community groups and advocacy organizations, are increasingly playing a critical role in covering local communities.

Educating Action Oriented Journalists

We are beginning to see seeds of that idea taking root in journalism schools as well. This fall CUNY is launching a new master’s degree in social journalism, what Jeff Jarvis calls “a degree in outcomes-based journalism.” In a post announcing the new program, Jarvis writes that “journalism must shift from seeing itself primarily as a producer of content for masses to become more explicitly a service to individuals and communities. Content fills things; service accomplishes things” (original emphasis). The Annenberg School at the University of Southern California runs an initiative helping local news sites research their civic engagement and civic impact. The University of Texas at Austin has created the Engaging News project at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life and in Chicago, the Medill School has launched what they call “a social justice news collective.”

Earlier this year, the Online News Association and a collection of funders, announced the first round of grants as part of a one million dollar Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education to “seed collaborative news experiments in living labs — their communities.” The Online News Association is not the only profession association working on these issues. The American Society of News Editors has partnered with Journalism That Matters to launch the Engagement Hub, with a focus on media diversity.

There are still big questions regarding how much this shift will actually reshape journalism. How many of these projects simply add a civic action layer over traditional journalism, versus fundamentally rethinking how journalism is done through the lens of civic engagement? In response to recent articles on, journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted: “Things we argued for 20 years ago in the civic journalism movement now get built into news companies like” That’s a good reminder that the changes we trace above have been in motion for a long time. All of these are indicators of a cultural shift within parts of the media, one that is very much still in process.


Disclosure: Earlier this month I attended a meeting with Brady and Krewson to give early feedback on

Corrected to fix a minor typo.

19 thoughts on “Journalism’s Theory of Change: From Community Engagement to Civic Action

  1. Journalism as a change agent is the death of journalism. Journalism prided itself on accuracy and objectivity, which is why it has the trust that makes it effective. To serve change, especially political change, it must start to sacrifice these three pillars. Adversarial journalism relies on treating the object of its reporting as an adversary. Thus, it cannot be objective or balanced. It must, by definition, treat the opponent partially, to be an adversary is to take a stand and to defend it. If your adversary makes a claim it is not be accepted as true but to be challenged or undermined. Even denials are treated with suspicion. In that sense, the balance born of objectivity is lost.

    If journalism takes a milder approach, say as a political agent rather than an adversary, it still suffers the same problem. Political change means that one has to accept that the status quo needs to change and that one knows what it must or needs to change to as a final destination. However, this becomes problematic because journalism does not have a democratic electoral mandate. It may have an audience and encourage that audience to action but that is not the same as a mandate and legitimacy created by elections. It is dangerous for journalists to confuse themselves with politicians. Journalists have a role in a democracy, but to have a theory of change and a political goal will reduce the public’s trust. In that sense, the journalists become a partisan actor in the realm of politics, yet that confuses their role. Are they creating content to help others decide or are they creating content to tell the public what to think. In this role, they become a rival to the politicians and that is dangerous because it confuses the public and undermines the democratic contract.

    If journalism becomes a political actor and seeks to achieve political change, we have to consider what happens when it is contrary to public opinion. What right does it have as an institution to tell the public what to think? Moreover, if they become a political actor, one has to ask whether they will become demagogues who use their comparative advantage to shape the common good and capture public opinion.

    In many ways, journalism as a political actor demonstrates how fragmented it has become and why it is destined to be a niche business serving the interests it wants as a political agent for some change rather than trying to serve the common good and use the public interest. In time, journalists become party of a political party and paid political mouthpieces. In that case, they will become propagandists and not journalists. Is this really the future of journalism we want or that would best serve a democracy?


    • Hi Lawrence,

      I think most of the projects here stop well short of “journalism as a political actor” in the way you worry about. The projects described above focus more on questions about how their journalism can be used by citizens to participate in the democracy. Contrary to becoming a niche business as your describe, these publications are trying to engage more meaningfully with their communities.

      These publications and other projects are asking questions about whether the journalism they produce is of use to communities and individuals who want to take action, and they are asking what more journalists should do to support the engagement of people in public life. And my sense is that even journalists who consider their work objective and impartial will say they hope their work helps make their communities better places.

      That said, journalism comes in many shapes and sizes and there have always been crusading journalists who approach their topics from a point of view and with concrete (at times political) goals in mind. That doesn’t mean they approach reporting in an ethical vacuum or that they are simply propagandists (though we’ve long had those too). This kind of work hasn’t led to disaster for journalism or the republic.

      I don’t say that to privilege any one model. I think journalism and the democracy is strongest when we have a diversity of voices and a multitude of models of reporting – and when we better engage our communities as critical consumers of news.


      • If you mean hyper local sites, then I agree that journalism, almost the old town crier, can be a way to develop community engagement. However, the article described work that goes beyond engagement to civic action.

        A further site says “do public good”, which suggests the journalists and those acting know the public good and what they want to pursue as the public good is not understood to be the public good. To change or deliver the public good is a political activity. I do not mean in the question begging sense that any activity in the public domain is a political activity (although that can be argued) only that the question of the good is an unavaoidable political question. In that regard, the journalist is becoming an active and direct political actor rather than an indirect and passive actor. There is one thing to hold power to account, there is another to seek to assume the mantle of power.
        I do see a serious problem for democracy within these models. I see strong parallels between a journalist as political actor and someone running an intelligence service. I also see a problematic history as their work is coming closer to the role of public intellectuals in Ancient Athens.

        I agree there are many models for journalism. My concern is that a theory of change is not simply an abstract process to understand how change happens and work back from preferred outcomes to necessary starting points, it becomes a plan to deliver political change in which journalism’s objectivity and trust are used as shields or masks for that political change. Until journalism clarifies its role, it will run an increasing danger that it will become agitprop.

        If journalism engages the community, it has to return to its roots and report what the community wants and needs rather than crusading after political points. In many ways, if journalism deals with the smaller issues of daily life, like why are the potholes not repaired, it will go a longer way to a theory of change than seeking to change society or deliver the public good.


  2. journalism has always been a political actor and a politicized institution.

    Appeals to professionalism, “objectivity” and “balance” are a load of crap that was discredited decades ago.

    The essential question is whether journalism serves power and privilege or truth and justice.

    Dodge needs to ask itself this question as an institution.

    I suggest a reading group, where some classics on journalism could be discussed in light of today’s situation, starting with “The Brass Check” by Upton Sinclair.

    Then Orwell and IF Stone.

    And then Chomsky and Chris Hedges


  3. I would be very interested in some analysis of what journalism as activism would do to the legal protections journalists receive currently. I would think the protections would erode further, or entirely disappear.


  4. It’s simple. Truth, both sides, should be the only “mission” of a journalist. What happens after that, is the right of the reader/viewer/consumer.


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  10. Lawrence is right that journalists should not decide what’s in the public’s best interest or act as change agents “crusading after political points.”

    I won’t speak for orgs mentioned in this article because I don’t know them intimately but in general journalists who only report things because it fits their point of view or don’t report because it contradicts their ideology aren’t journalists. They are, as Lawrence said, propagandists. It’s journalism as long as honest analysis of information is the compass, not self interest.

    Journalism is not dying. The business model and ways to produce and distribute content are changing, as are attitudes about objectivity.

    And I’m no journalism professor but I’m pretty sure that impartiality only emerged when metropolitan daily newspapers found a monopoly. Before then (and after that for papers that weren’t metro dailies) papers weren’t exactly impartial. Yellow journalism practiced a century ago wasn’t impartial and advocacy news orgs (that date back even further) aren’t new. Smart consumers will take information from these groups with a grain of salt and in the context of reporting by other news outlets.

    An individual reporter or news outlet who is honest about who they are and their ideological leanings doesn’t betray journalism so long as full disclosure is followed. That’s not out of line with modern day media or the history of journalism.

    A news outlet that decides to lean toward civic action and does not write opinion pieces may be more credible since they don’t have an op-ed by the paper’s publisher or masthead like most newspapers. They have been telling elected officials what to do and readers what they think for a very long time.

    These groups won’t lead to the death of journalism but at what point do we declare the patient dead? When a majority of jobs in our industry are lost? When journalism fails to meet the needs of communities? Who is to say journalism as it was known a decade or two ago isn’t already dead?

    I support news orgs or civic tech companies trying to build in places where news outlets have fallen away. I support efforts to foster the return of journalism to communities that lack coverage, where people haven’t known for a very long time what’s happening at city hall, their school district and local institutions or forum to air their grievances.

    Media entrepreneurs and civic action journalists adopt some of the professional standards employed by old media and are beginning to make their own. I wouldn’t call encouragement to participate in democratic processes advocacy. It’s a principle from old media but not every old media principle should transfer to new media. Those old principles and the inability to adapt did not save the news business from devastation.

    The internet is 25 years old this year and we STILL don’t know the full potential or monetary models to tell stories that will ensure a future for news.

    What we do know is finding the model or models can help promote civic society and participation in democratic processes for the betterment of communities.

    What we do know is there are so, so many communities in America that have been overlooked for decades by an objective media that managed to ignore entire swaths of society. If journalists who encourage civic action engage previously ignored people and their work is led by responsible, accurate reporting then they have a cheerleader in me.

    Like food deserts, today we have media deserts, places where the local story and info about how to be involved are not shared. Media entrepreneurship and civic action can cover holes in the media landscape and add to the diversity of voices in American media. That’s really exciting.

    Reporters that consider accuracy anything less than sacrosanct are doing a disservice. Anyone who wants to weep over the bones of dead journalism and days gone by is free to do so. People who can give people the tools to be part of a kind of revitalization for both journalism and communities will continue. Hopefully it leads to growth and getting revenant info to more people; hopefully ambitious new ideas ensure journalism does not become a “niche business.”


  11. I find it interesting that in many of these responses is the idea of a predetermined political outcome, or an endgame. A theory of change isn’t an ideology; it’s a measurement tool. To say that the purpose of journalism is simply to inform is disingenuous. I’ve worked with marginalized and disadvantaged communities for years—people whose stories, when they were finally told, were told for them and not by them. As someone who has worked in hyperlocal and citizen journalism, who has worked with marginalized groups to create their own media, who has spent a decade gleaning from the history of journalism, covering community issues is only a first step—an important step and often missing one for marginalized communities, but still the first.

    The idea that there’s simply a food desert in media (useful framing, @kharijohnson!) that can be remedied is a real disservice. A theory of change is not the death of fair reporting. Instead of assuming that civics happen after people consume some 2D content, we have to consider journalism’s role beyond newsprint and beyond the screen. It seems like everyone here, including me, feels that journalism should empower people to take civic action *if they feel like it.*

    Helping people feel empowered takes way more than size 12 font, on a 2D medium.

    Liked by 1 person

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