The great transition » Nieman Journalism Lab

Do you like a juicy diagram to locate yourself in a complex context? If so, you are in luck.

The brilliant writers and systems thinkers Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze developed the “Two Loops” model, which describes how complex organizations and all living systems follow a predictable, albeit non-linear, pattern of change.

I keep coming back to this image as my home base deals with WTF, what goes on in journalism, other institutions that are the pillars of democracy, and pretty much everything in life.

The dominant system. Most journalism outlets are part of this top loop – the prevailing system. And most are in a state of decline. We see hospice, death and decay in the form of layoffs, consolidations, mergers, hedge fund takeovers and the inevitable total shutdown of news agencies. The attraction to the grave remains quite strong.

The emerging system. But the exciting thing is that in the lower loop – the emergent system – many seeds are sown, watered, and tended.

Here are some of the topics that caught my eye:

  • Decentralization and overcoming the “profit vs. non-profit” riddle: Think DAOs, blockchain, and journalism startups that are built on collective ownership, like Bloc by Block News. There are study groups forming around media cooperatives and there is a growing recognition that for a real transformation of journalism, controls need to be adjusted down to the level of business models, ownership and governance. An exciting political project is the Capital for Cooperatives Act, which Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper presented to Congress in May (more on this here). And on the other hand, when a media company “leaves”, it investigates and experiments what a decentralized “exit into the community” as an alternative to an IPO or takeover could look like.
  • Political Innovation: Other shining examples are the $ 1.67 billion aid to local news organizations under the Build Back Better Plan and the work of Community Info Coop to develop a local tax policy to encourage local journalism through the creation of Info Districts support. As discontent with the status quo has turned from a murmur to a roar, there is seldom an opportunity for bold policy change ideas and incentives for how high quality, fact-checked journalism is funded, taxed and included as a vital public health contribution.
  • Journalism as a mutual aid: Bright lights like City Bureau’s Darryl Holliday have shared insights into how mutual aid and solidarity networks have grown not only due to economic inequality and the pandemic, but also how grassroots groups are starting to form their own information centers – their own journalism through and Per You. Media entrepreneur Maritza L. Félix saw the need to help each other fight against election misinformation for Spanish-speaking families in Arizona and Mexico, and in response, founded Conecta Arizona. It’s growing at a rapid pace and it all started in a WhatsApp group. (FWIW, technologies like Hearken’s Community Management System were developed to facilitate mutual aid, although we have found that most newsrooms are not yet ready to consider establishing a mutual aid network.)

So how do newsrooms on the downward trend of the dominant system – those who are not yet hip or able to adopt the business models, qualities, and platforms of the emerging systems – and bypass the compost bin? Here are three practical recommendations.

  • Commitment and commitment as that next revenue model for newsrooms. Kristen Muller, CCO of KPCC, has followed this logic and has proven it correct for years and has now started a new program together with three other public media offices to operationalize engagement in revenue. This doesn’t just mean “getting involved” – it means investing in people who know their way around. It’s about people building relationships and using tools to support their workflows. In a future in which decentralization is the key, more and more editorial offices are realizing that they need to decentralize their area of ​​responsibility (so to speak) and invite them to participate. This allows newsrooms to turn the editorial team from the losing side of the P&L into direct revenue streams as their engagement views and responses generate first-party data that is converted into qualified leads for memberships and subscriptions. But of course, if people don’t trust your news agency to begin with, they won’t bother to deal with its content or the people they represent. This is where the next recommendation comes in.
  • Harm Mitigation Practices. How could journalists and news outlets become less harmful to the communities they have not served well or which they have directly damaged through narrative violence and divestment? Many journalists ask themselves this question and find answers that will hopefully soon become the industry standard. From diversity source trackers (see API version here and NPRs here) to overhauling crime reporting to trauma-informed reporting and less extractive reporting practices, there are many ways newsrooms can refine their reporting paradigms and practices to create fairer reporting and more trust to accomplish.
  • Identify the champions and invest in them. In the two-loop diagram, you may have noticed the balancing act of a line connecting the dominant system with the emergent system. On that line are a number of points that represent actual people – the champions – who do the hard and often ungrateful work of being part of the dominant system and helping it transition into the nascent system. These are the people in a particular newsroom who help the organization eradicate practices that no longer serve their stakeholders and experiment with and expand on new, promising ways of working. If you work in a dominant systems department, I strongly recommend that you take two minutes to think about who these people are in your organization. In addition to being on the editorial side of the house, you likely work in events, marketing, revenue, subscriptions / membership, or elsewhere. How could you form a community of practice with these people? It could be as simple as taking them all over for a virtual coffee, sharing this article or diagram, and encouraging a discussion of what they are seeing in the emerging system and where they are finding opportunities or feeling stuck. To adapt a famous quote from Margaret Mead: Never doubt that a small group of attentive, dedicated editorial staff can transform your organization from the inside out; In fact, it’s the only thing that has ever existed.

Going back to the title of this prediction, “The Great Transition,” the word “great” can mean something positive and extraordinary, or something very big. I believe that both interpretations of the word apply to the transition of journalism. The gap between dominant newsroom practices, ownership structures and incentives and what is emerging is indeed wide. So are the pioneers who are either still working within the prevailing system or who have left it, as well as the neighboring practitioners who are new to the system to build the emerging system. In this case, the saying “what you pay attention to grows” serves as an invitation: In which of these two cycles, these two systems do you invest your precious attention in growth?

PS While the people who know me in a journalistic context probably know my work at Hearken – which strives to help the dominant system players transition to emerging – I’ve been working on the emergent system since 2016 by co-founding Zebras Unite. I bet this unity and collection of practitioners has the power to transform journalism more than Hearken can. We’ll see in a decade or so if this underprediction is correct;). In the meantime, those who are interested in what is emerging should definitely follow the work of / at: Nathan Schneider, MEDLab at Boulder, Mara Zepeda, and Exit 2 Community. For entrepreneurs building the next journalism businesses, join Zebras Unite’s free online community.

And if you’re curious about Margaret Wheatley, the brilliant thinker who helped create the Two Loops model and more, I had the chance to interview her in 2018. I leave this quote from her for you to think about.

It takes a lot of courage and fearlessness to make a decision about how you want to be successful in your profession. Do you want to have moral integrity? Do you want to stand up for your profession and change it? You realize where it is now is pretty miserable. It is up to you to decide if you are one of the people doing your best to change that.

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