Thursday, August 9, 2007

Responsible Journalism: The Journalism That Matters Conference, Day Two

Day One of the Journalism That Matters conference was great in that I saw how determined this group is to create a new business model for journalism in the 21st century (the group is calling it "the next news room")... and also how open they were to my pitch to apply the business concept of innovation to their "product"... to their reporting on what happens in our world. You can read my previous blog, about Day One, here.

Of course, getting to discuss what innovation applied to journalism looks like was what I was most excited about going into Day Two. And that discussion is still the highlight of the day for me, but the additional isights that came from some of the other breakout sessions were very impressive. Here are what those other key insights were, at least as I heard them...

1) "Watergate style" journalism is turning off young people big time. What young people want are partnerships and conversations. They are fed up with the "us against them" world in general and are looking for journalism to not be about that all the time either.

2) More women than men are enrolling in journalism schools across America. This may be because the starting salaries for journalists aren't as high as they are for other professions, so fewer men are interested in the field. Whatever the cause, it means that the profession will have an increasingly feminine aspect to it. You can take that in whatever direction you want to take it. For me, it means a greater interest in stories that have to do with the building up of society rather than the tearing down of society. (Both types of activities are going on, after all, even if we don't hear constructive stories as often as we here destructive ones.)

3) Major news organizations are able to bring people together for events, such as political debates. This capability could be used to bring people in a community together for other reasons as well. This insight came out of a number of breakout sessions (including my own).

What follows is how I reported the results of my session: A Blue Ocean Strategy for Journalism. Before you read that "report", I want to ask that you make sure you look at the end of what I've written. Because I end with a link that relates to what we all saw a Blue Ocean Strategy for journalism could be. But I recommend that you first read the report. Thanks!

A Blue Ocean Strategy for Journalism

Convener: Steve Brant

Reporter: Steve Brant


Jeff Young, Chronicle of Higher Education
Holly Stocking, Indiana University School of Journalism
Jennifer Ward, Fresno Bee
Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, Education Week
Tom Davidson, The Tribune Company
Manny Garcia, The Miami Herald
Angela Nelson, The Boston Globe
Maurreen Skouran, The News & Observer, Raleigh, NC
Andrew Haeg, American Public Media / Public Insight Journalism, Saint Paul, Minnesota
Bob Greiner, The Washington Post
Rob Park, Graduate Student, Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA
Wally Bowen (came in for the last 30 minutes), Mountain Area Information Network, Asheville, N.C.

Essence of the session: "From reporting on problems to reporting on problems being solved!"

The professional journalists in this session recognized that they are currently selling a "failed product". The evidence for this is that their customers are "voting with their eyes and dollars". They recognized that this existing, failed product model is one in which the story being reported almost always ends with the description of the problem. It doesn't go to the next step... to the "end of the story".

This group was very responsible about the current reality of journalism. Rather than thinking "all we need to do is find better ways to fund what we're already doing" (as if their product cannot not be improved), they looked at what they are selling with a critical eye and saw the potential to develop a "Blue Ocean Strategy" for their profession that goes beyond what their customers normally get.. to go beyond what their customers think they can have.. beyond what their customers are asking for (at least the majority of customers)... to go from reporting on problems to reporting on problems AND how they are being solved.

In addition to seeing the appropriateness of going "beyond problem reporting... to problem and solution reporting", this group envisioned expanding the services their businesses deliver on-line (and possibly also out in the "off line" world) to include facilitating the honest, open, and transparent search for solutions. They discussed examples they were aware of in which their companies had helped convene groups for various reasons in the past, even as those instances were not the main stream nature of the reporting being done by their organizations. They came up with the image of a "block party" in search of solutions, to signify that the process of uncovering root causes (through the use of expert researchers, I think.. but also community dialog ) and developing solutions would be done in a spirit of fun.

From a "what constitutes a well-written story" perspective, the group recognized that news stories must contain an element of tension... and that this tension usually comes from the element of conflict that is in the story. The group realized that stories about solutions, not just problems, could also contain tension when they told how various obstacles were overcome in the process of developing the solutions.

The commitments on the part of this session's participants to use this new business model were not recorded. I don't think they all got to that point in their thinking. However, they agreed that they wanted this conversation to continue and agreed that they should all receive each other's email addresses to help facilitate that process. By "CC'ing" the entire participant list, I am giving each of them the contact information for the whole group... in addition to giving them easy access to these notes for future use and / or comment. (I may have missed something or miss-stated something and am open to correction.)

Here is the summary of the session, as recorded on the newsprint which was posted on the conference wall...


VISION: Hopeful but skeptical analysis of problems and their solutions

MISSION: Journalism reports on and helps facilitate solutions-seeking "Block Parties"


- Hype Free Zone (Show what's working and what's not)
- Story tension comes from overcoming obstacles (not "Gotcha Journalism")
- Study root causes so that solutions target disease, not symptoms
- Involve readers in search for solutions

What is the Blue Ocean? It's going from reporting on problems to reporting on problems being solved! ... thereby giving our customers HOPE that society's "fires" can someday be put out.

What can we then have in a world that's no longer "on fire"? Hmmm....

End of report.

The link I want you to see is about this: While this group developed a business plan for moving from reporting on problems to reporting on how problems are being solved, Phil Bronstein, Editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, was launching a very similar sounding news-about-solutions" initiative which is being called "Journalism of Action". Here's where you can read about what's happening at The Chronicle. (Have you ever heard of synchronicity?)

Lastly, I call this post "Responsible Journalism" because I believe it's irresponsible for journalists to stop telling the story after they finish describing the problem. "Responsible Journalism" is journalism that admits that reality consists of both problems and solutions... and takes responsibility for telling us about the solutions too, even if it's harder to write about solutions than it is to write about problems.

I don't know where or why the practice of "ending the story with the problem" started. But I know one thing: It drives me and a lot of other people crazy! When we read about something bad and are then left hanging, it's like hearing almost all of a song but not getting to hear the end. The mind wants completion - not open-endedness - at least most of the time. "Things are bad. End of story." That's incredibly frustrating!

Years ago I wrote a letter to 60 Minutes in which I said "Why don't you folks tell people how to do something about the problems you're reporting on?" I never got a reply, but the problem has only gotten worse. After all, only 25 percent of the American people think our country is going in the right direction. If the public knew that solutions to our problems actually exist - And. They. Do. - they'd be more hopeful about the future.

Fortunately, people like Phil Bronstein are beginning to see the light. And all the people in my breakout session did. Oh, and Katie Couric appeared to have seen it too, based on what she said at a July 2006 event at the Aspen Institute. This was as she was preparing to take over as anchor of The CBS Evening News. You can watch the video of her answering a question from the audience about solutions, not just problems, below. (It's less than 2 minutes long.)

There's still time for Katie and her team to make this happen. Maybe she'll see this post and decide to do it!

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