HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Where you get your news depends on where you stand on the issues
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
June 4, 2013, 10 a.m.

A new kind of activist journalism: When finding solutions are part of journalists’ job, too

The executive director of J-Lab says it’s time for news to move from a commodity to a catalyst for empowering citizens.

Four years ago, UrbanMilwaukee.com zeroed in on South 2nd Street, a pocked roadway in the city’s Walker’s Point section that seemed “ripe for improvement,” said site co-founder David Reid.

The local community weighed in with ideas, then graphic artist Kieran Sweeney sketched a possible redesign. It included, trees and access for pedestrians and bikers as well as cars. His sketch was entered in a livable-streets competition, and it took second place.

That was just the news peg traditional Milwaukee news outlets needed to publish the images. Before long, a local alderman got on board and the idea of a redesign got put on the public works agenda. Two years later, the community cut the ribbon on — voila — its new streetscape.

This example (from J-Lab’s “Engaging Audiences” report) and many more struck me as I listened on Friday to a panel at the Ashoka Future Forum wrestle with ideas on how to move news from a commodity to a catalyst for empowering citizens.

urbanmilwauke-beforeurbanmilwauke-after

From 2009: A photo of South 2nd Street in Milwaukee (top) and a concept image by Kieran Sweeney.

“We’re seeking to go from knowledge to movement,” said Jonathan Wells, managing publisher of the Christian Science Monitor, which is crafting a survival strategy that involves more than just going all-digital. “In five years, the Monitor will be building communities around intention and intentionality,” he said.

If one shifts the periscope from new business models for journalism to new journalism models for news, I see the convergence of several trends that are beginning to provoke a new conversation about whether journalists can — and should — craft a more deliberate suite of tools that inspire movement and action. And if these tools were effective, would citizen begin to pay as much for news as they pay to go to, say, a TED conference?

To be sure, advocacy is still a dirty word for legacy journalists, unless it’s an editorial-board crusade. But activating examples are rising from both inside and outside mainstream media. In addition to its before-and-after streets visualization, Urban Milwaukee, for one, has also invited readers to plot new trolley routes. Several news outlets have employed budget calculators, news games, and clickable maps to give news consumers a way to wrestle with public choices. They usually fall short, however, of becoming actual change agents.

My colleague Matt Nesbit has chronicled the rise of “knowledge journalists,” such as Bill McKibben, who use their expert logic to analyze problems and political logic to help point to policy solutions. Now we see the return of “solutions journalism,” a notably successful tool in the civic and public journalism toolbox of more than a decade ago.

With the rise of the “Solutions Journalism Network,” David Bornstein, who writes for The New York Times’ Fixes blog, aspires to persuade journalists to include a solutions component in their stories. “Journalists say: I am allowed to cover the problems and then go home and my job is done,” Bornstein told the Ashoka gathering. “Why not cover the other half of the story?…If the solutions don’t work, we can cover that, too.”

“Society will become better when you show it where it’s going wrong and how it can be done better,” he said.

Bornstein advocates doing deep dives on “positive deviance.” Rather than focusing on failures, journalists can pull out the contrarian success stories in data sets and unpack the elements of their success.

From my perch, I see many indie news startups embrace what I call more of a “soft-advocacy” comfort level with news. ClearHealthCosts.com is partnering with WNYC to map widely disparate costs of mammograms in the New York region. PlanPhilly has not only spotlighted the enormous problem of delinquent property taxes in Philadelphia, it reported on how the city might fix its broken system. When Catalyst Chicago reported there were too many empty seats in the city’s pre-school programs, it didn’t stop there. It worked with local community organizations to produce a series of forums on early childhood education. A year later, nearly all the pre-school slots were filled.

There may be much to learn from how TED has evolved. Initially, its talks spotlighted speakers at luxury conferences who had ideas worth spreading. But TED Media executive producer June Cohen told the Ashoka group that in an effort to spread the good ideas, she invited interest from television networks. When they got no takers, they videotaped the talks and put them online.

“Our worry was this would capsize our business model of luxury conferences that costs $4,000,” Cohen said. “What happened was precisely against conventional wisdom. We raised our prices by 50 percent to $6,000 and we sold out within a week with a thousand-person waiting list.” Now, 10,000 volunteer translators translate TED Talks into other languages, and groups can sign up to do their local TedX events “to find their own stories and bring them out.”

“TED has gone from being a conference in California to being a global media platform,” she said, with aspirations to figure out how to inspire audiences to take the next steps in addressing problems. Cohen points out that “sponsors want to be associated with positive change.” In five years, she sees the TedX networks of bottoms-up storytelling “driving us” to be a “network of idea generation that will be tied to action.”

Her thinking aligns with the Christian Science Monitor’s Wells, who sees the relationships changing significantly between the news organization and its consumers and advertisers. “People are looking for a sense of empowerment and an ability to take action,” he said.

Can it be monetized? “People pay for the Harvard Business Review,” Bornstein points out, “because it solves their problems.”

Jan Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab, a journalism catalyst for igniting news ideas that work by funding pilot projects, awarding innovations and sharing practical insights from years of working with news creators. J-Lab is based at American University’s School of Communication.

POSTED     June 4, 2013, 10 a.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Where you get your news depends on where you stand on the issues
A new study by the Pew Research Center examines how Americans’ news consumption habits correlate with where they fall on the political spectrum.
Light everywhere: The California Civic Data Coalition wants to make public datasets easier to crunch
Journalists from rival outlets are pursuing the dream of “pluggable data,” partnering to build open-source tools to analyze California campaign finance and lobbying data.
Ebola Deeply builds on the lessons of single-subject news sites: A news operation with an expiration date
Following the blueprint of Syria Deeply, the new Ebola-focused site hopes to deliver context and coherence in covering the spread and treatment of the virus.
What to read next
1020
tweets
The newsonomics of the millennial moment
The new wave of news startups is aiming at a younger audience. But do legacy media companies have a chance at earning their attention?
803A mixed bag on apps: What The New York Times learned with NYT Opinion and NYT Now
The two apps were part of the paper’s plan to increase digital subscribers through smaller, targeted offerings. Now, with staff cutbacks on the way, one app is being shuttered and the other is being adjusted.
537Watching what happens: The New York Times is making a front-page bet on real-time aggregation
A new homepage feature called “Watching” offers readers a feed of headlines, tweets, and multimedia from around the web.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Al Jazeera
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Austin American-Statesman
Conde Nast
DNAinfo
Spot.Us
Plaza Pública
Time
Alaska Dispatch
Tumblr
Tribune Publishing
SeeClickFix