Reviewing these two projects, coupled with our work around community engagement over the past several years, provided a critical insight: When journalism is at or near the center of focus, it can get in the way of reinvention. The experiments we followed demonstrated the most success when journalism was at the table, along with others who care about civic life. external image image?w=316&h=214&rev=27&ac=1

Our conclusion: Journalism won’t be “fixed” from the inside. Since incumbents are rarely the harbingers of novel solutions, it’s no surprise that whatever form journalism next takes, it will likely come from innovations outside the existing system. Further, those innovations will come not by looking through the lens of journalism but rather at the intersection of multiple disciplines that involve storytelling and participatory community practices that activate a more engaged citizenry.

When old systems of thought – the assumptions of how things work – cease to function, the structures they generate fall to pieces. Legacy journalists often point to simpler times when everyone knew what was important because they saw or read the same stories on network TV or the newspaper front page. Yet those stories often rendered people who were not of the dominant culture invisible or cast communities of color as the problem. Today, social media has eroded legacy media’s gatekeeping functions so that no one person or organization sets the agenda for what matters. The resulting cacophony of voices yields misinformation, confused residents, and a paralyzed public unable to act on important national and local issues. As trust erodes, residents become disenfranchised from a media system intended to inform citizens in a democratic society.
Our work seeks to transform this situation.

The many communication experiments under way in technology, content, and process draw from a mix of old and new values and ideas. For example, the __Macon Listening Post__ introduced a technology that asks questions of the audience to create ongoing feedback loops that inform an existing approach to journalism. Some aspects worked, some didn’t. While Macon’s Listening Post did not continue, new iterations are building on those lessons until something coalesces that conserves what is still of value and embraces that which wasn’t possible before. Other experiments that have emerged to serve specific communities include content innovations like __Syria Deeply__ that provide deep context to topical issues; process changes like __Hearken__ that combine technology with authentic, face-to-face community engagement; hyperlocal online news structures like __Seattle Globalist__ that constrain geography to create intimacy and a sense of place while also making a unique, in this case, immigrant community visible to its neighbors; and business model innovations like the __Banyan Project__ that is experimenting with a local, cooperative model for funding journalism.

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How can we look at community in a way that allows us to surface the unique knowledge and needs of the people of the community and engages residents in dialogue toward localized solutions? Community engagement in the projects we evaluated moved beyond the current social media measurements of clicks, page-views, and time-on-page. They attempted to engage local stakeholders in fostering a collaborative, generative space to design new communication systems cocreated by listening to community needs. In them, where people produce, create, share, use, understand, and take action with information (not just consume it). They also connect to larger contexts where information can make a difference (e.g., in policy-making arenas).

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These culture shifts from consumers to cocreators of news and information engage local residents as actors in the civic realm, where residents are telling their own stories, generating solutions, hosting conversations to understand the history and complexity of issues, exchanging information for collective purposes, and being in action around the issues in other forms of civic engagement.
Indeed, we also have observed over many years that meaningful conversations, generative storytelling (including but not limited to journalism), and the arts are effective ways to cultivate and repair relationships, and enhance inclusivity. We discovered that trust results when civil dialogue occurs.

A goal of civic communications is building trust through authentic, reciprocal relationships among diverse stakeholders. We believe it can cultivate new and repair old relationships within and around communities, notably those traditionally underserved and underrepresented.

Some of the projects we examined put significant effort into bringing together people from different classes and spheres of influence, including higher education, government, labor, the nonprofit sector, activists, independent change agents, journalists, and interested community members.

While one outcome of this more authentic relational posture is richer, deeper, more diverse sourcing and content for journalism organizations, it also can grow trusted agents within the local system for ongoing dialogue and action around community issues and vision. Journalism is an essential part of civic communications, but without attention to the other relationships and activities in the civic communications sphere, the journalism will fall far short of its potential. external image image?w=316&h=154&rev=60&ac=1

Given how critical journalism is to civic health, Journalism That Matters has turned its attention to what we can contribute to “midwifing” innovations in that broader communications sphere – cultivating novel, vibrant approaches to civic communications that support new and more diverse actors and communities to thrive.