The Great Transition ”Nieman Journalism Lab

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

The brilliant systemic writers and thinkers Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze generated 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 original base to fight the WTF occurs in journalism, other institutions that form the pillars of democracy, and well, pretty much everything in life.

The dominant system. Most of the media are part of this upper loop – the dominant system. And most of them are in some state of degradation. We see hospice care, death and decay take the form of layoffs, consolidations, mergers, hedge fund buyouts and the inevitable complete media shutdown. The gravitational pull towards the grave remains quite fierce.

The emerging system. But what’s exciting is that there are a lot of seeds that are sown, watered, and nurtured in the lower loop – the emerging system.

Here are some of the themes that I notice:

  • Decentralization and overcoming the “for-profit vs. non-profit “: think of DAOs, blockchain and journalism startups based on collective ownership like News Block by Block. There are study groups forming around media cooperatives and greater awareness that for journalism to truly transform, you need to adjust controls down to the level of business models, ownership and governance. An exciting political effort is the Co-operative Capital Act that Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper presented to Congress in May (read more about it here). And on the other hand, when a media company ‘pulls out’, people study and experience what a decentralized system is ”exit to the communityWould look like an alternative to an IPO or an acquisition.
  • Political innovation: Other shining examples include the $ 1.67 billion in aid for local news agencies nested in the plan Reconstruct better and work than Community information cooperative made to create a policy for a local tax to support local journalism through the creation of Neighborhood Info. As dissatisfaction with the status quo has grown from a mumble to a roar, there is a rare openness for bold ideas to change the policy and incentives on how quality, verified journalism is funded. , taxed and included as an essential contributor to public health. .
  • Journalism as mutual aid: Bright lights like City Bureau’s Darryl Holliday shared insights into how mutual aid and solidarity networks have grown not only due to economic disparities and the pandemic, but also the way grassroots groups on the ground are starting to form their own clearinghouses – their own journalism through and for them. Media entrepreneur Maritza L. Félix recognized the need for mutual aid in combating election misinformation for Spanish-speaking families in Arizona and Mexico, and began Conecta Arizona as an answer. He’s growing up at a rapid pace, and it all started in a WhatsApp group. (FWIW, technologies like Hearken’s Community management system are designed to support self-help, although we have found that most newsrooms are not yet ready to consider starting a self-help network.)

So how do newsrooms on the downward slope of the dominant system – ones that are not yet plugged in or capable of embracing the business models, qualities, and platforms of emerging systems – transition and escape – they in the compost bin? Here are three practical recommendations.

  • Commitment and commitment as the next revenue model for newsrooms. Kristen Muller, CCO of KPCC, has been following this logic and proving it right for years, and has now started a new program alongside three other public media newsrooms to operationalize the revenue commitment. It doesn’t just mean “make the engagement” – it means investing in people who are qualified to engage. These are people building relationships and using tools to support their workflows. If the future is one where decentralization is key, more and more newsrooms are realizing that they need to decentralize their home office (so to speak) and invite participation. In doing so, newsrooms can shift editorial staff from the loss side of the income statement to direct revenue generators, as their engagement calls and responses generate first-party data that translates into qualified leads for. membership and subscriptions. But of course, if people don’t trust your medium to begin with, they won’t bother to engage with its content or the people who represent it. This is where the next recommendation comes in.
  • Harm reduction practices. How can journalists and the media become less harmful to communities they have not served well, or have downright damaged by narrative violence and disinvestment? Many journalists are asking this question and coming up with answers that will hopefully soon become the industry standard. From the trackers of sources of diversity (see API version here, and NPR is here) at overhaul of crime coverage at trauma-informed reporting and less extractive reporting practices, there are many ways newsrooms can evolve their reporting paradigms and practices to generate fairer coverage and more trust.
  • Identify and invest in champions. In the two-loop diagram, you may have noticed the tightrope of a line that connects the dominant system to the emerging system. On that line is a series of dots that represent real people – the champions – doing the difficult and often thankless job of being part of the dominant system and helping it move on to the emerging system. These are the people in a given newsroom who help the organization move away from practices that no longer serve its stakeholders, and who experiment and amplify new ways of working that prove to be promising. If you work in a newsroom of a dominant system, I urge you to take two minutes and think about who these people are in your organization. They’re probably not just on the editorial side of the house but can work in events, marketing, revenue, subscriptions / memberships, or whatever. How could you form a community of practice with these people? It can be as simple as inviting them all to a virtual cafe, sharing that article or diagram, and supporting a discussion about what they see in the emerging system and where they find opportunities or feel blocked. To adapt a famous quote from Margaret Mead, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed newsroom workers can change their organization from the inside out; indeed, it is the only thing that has ever existed.

Going back to the title of that prediction, “The Great Transition”: the word “large” can mean something positive and out of the ordinary, or something very large. I believe both interpretations of the word are true for the ongoing transition to journalism. The gap between dominant newsroom practices, ownership structures and incentives, and what is emerging, is indeed large. The same is true of the pioneers who are still working within the dominant system or who have left it, and so are the adjacent practitioners who have just come to build the emerging system. In this case, the adage “what you pay attention to grows” serves as an invitation: which of these two loops, of these two systems, are you devoting your precious attention to growing?

PS Although people who know me in a journalism setting are probably familiar with my work at To listen – which aims to help the actors of the dominant system to move to the emerging – since 2016 I have been working in parallel on the emerging system as a co-founder Zebras unite. I bet this entity and this collection of practitioners have the power to do more than Hearken to transform journalism. We will see in ten years if this sub-prediction is correct;). In the meantime, if you’re interested in the Emerging, be sure to keep track of the work from / to: Nathan Schneider, MEDLab in Boulder, Mara Zepeda, and Community outlet 2. For entrepreneurs building the next journalism businesses, join the free online community of Zebras Unite.

And if you are curious about Margaret wheatley, the brilliant thinker who co-created the Two Loops model and more, I had the chance to interview him in 2018. I leave you with this quote from her to ponder.

It will take a lot of courage and fearlessness to make a choice about how you want to be successful in your profession. Do you want to have moral integrity? Do you want to defend the profession, and change it? You recognize where it is now is pretty abysmal. You have to decide if you are going to be one of the people who will do your best to change it.

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