Surfing the Tidal Wave of Change

It is official.  The good news is that there is now broad-based agreement that the news industry is in crisis, as clearly described by Mark Fitzgerald and Jennifer Saba in their SPECIAL REPORT: Turn and Face the Change — With Newspaper Industry in Crisis, ‘Everything’s on the Table’

While acknowledging that the situation creates tremendous opportunity for those who have a viable strategy for riding the waves of the unknown, Fitzgerald and Saba offer no specifics.  That is where Journalism that Matters can make a difference.

There are three common patterns that most of us use when responding to crisis. Two of them have passed their utility in this situation.  The third is the most radical and the most likely to succeed in today’s environment.

Pattern 1:  Just Do It
For most of us, our first response is to act from habit, to ignore everything but the symptoms that are in front of us, fix it and get back to business as usual.  When that isn’t enough, the crisis gets worse.

Pattern 2:  Take Charge
When the situation is so dire that it can no longer be ignored, the strategy perhaps most commonly employed is to act from certainty and try to manage it.  Study it, set targets and objectives, go to work, measure the results.  When it is a technical problem, this strategy works well.  When there is something bigger going on, as there is in an industry that is losing its audience and its sources of income, this approach will likely fail.

Pattern 3:  Learn to surf

Some of our most cherished assumptions– and our ability to manage them – have broken down.  Many are throwing up their hands and saying, “I’m stumped.  I don’t know what to do.”  Business as usual is over. When there are no clear answers and the dynamics of the situation are in a state of flux, what strategies allow an organization to deal with the unknown effectively?
A strategy that has proven successful – and we have all experienced at some point in our lives – is to act from inquiry, in essence to make it up as we go along. There is information in the disturbances we face.  After all, bloggers are doing well.  What messages for our work are hidden in their success?  There is the promise of creative and innovative possibilities waiting for us within the realm we currently view as unknown.  To find them, we have to explore.
There is actually a field of practice, called Whole System Change, that has been studying and experimenting with handling the chaos of transformative change well for the last fifty years.  Designed to work with the unknown, it has developed practices that support people in understanding the dynamics at play in complex situations so that they can identify possible directions to pursue.  The industry will be in flux for quite some time.  Those who survive will most likely do so by learning how to have some influence while moving with the flow.

To do so involves working the unknown in ways that make clues to emerging solutions visible and actionable. Informed by theories of complexity science, promising practices apply the dynamics of self-organization to organizational systems. The interaction of diverse entities in a nurturing and challenging context generates the emergence of novel, more useful forms of organization.   As applied to organizations, this involves:

•    Asking ambitious, possibility oriented questions
Given the state of the industry, what is possible now?
What is the role of journalism in a digital age and how is it best provided?

•    Inviting the diversity of the system to participate in shaping responses
Who are the people with authority, resources, expertise, information and need? Who is affected?  Who cares about the future of journalism?
Bring together print, broadcast, new media, media reformers, media educators, citizen journalists, audience and others who care about the future of journalism.

•    Creating the conditions for an open dialogue
This is a complex system that is completely reformulating itself.  By creating hospitable conditions and bringing together people from different aspects of the system, each of which has pieces of the puzzle, entirely new connections can be made.  A picture that none of us can create alone will begin to emerge.
Journalism that Matters has begun to articulate an emerging story of the new news ecology.  It includes: journalism as a conversation rather than a lecture; high touch sourcing/high tech delivery; education that, in addition to the core practice of journalism, includes broad-based media literacy and the art of engagement.

•    Experimenting with promising ideas that emerge
This is not the work of  “take that hill” or “leading the charge”.  Rather, it is the work of asking questions that focus our attention towards deeply felt, collective aspirations, creating hospitable conditions that invite the diversity of the system to step in and take initiative, creating an organic boundary for action through inquiries that express clear intentions.  By following the energy of the exploration, sensing what patterns are emerging, and calling those patterns into collective awareness, novel and often utterly unpredictable responses appear.
That is what we have been doing with Journalism that Matters.  It is no accident that so many of the University of Missouri Fellows have all participated in JtM sessions.  Or that several Knight Challenge grant recipients had their ideas surface or be clarified at a JTM session.  Attendees keep coming back because we are providing a rich, nutrient environment, a diverse mix of participants, and the space to explore possibilities.

This strategy provides the means for a productive relationship with the unknown.  Care to join us?


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