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August 4, 2014

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, Brother.ly, 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 Brother.ly 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 Technical.ly 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 Brother.ly, journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted: “Things we argued for 20 years ago in the civic journalism movement now get built into news companies like brother.ly.” 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 Brother.ly.

Corrected to fix a minor typo.