NPQ chose its new model of collaborative journalism more than a year ago. We looked at every new model that was being experimented with and chose a form that depended upon the intelligence of those working in civil society to produce a higher, now collectively produced, level of intelligence for those working in civil society.
NPQ’s model allows it to be a broadly embedded and distributed nervous system, picking up new tremors and noting changes in the weather and speculating wisely about what might occur next. This system depends upon a network of informants, lay reporters, and analysts: you. This was the only way, we thought, that civil society would get the journalistic presence it needed as it was poising itself to become the most important sector in negotiating the future of the world. And it was also the best way.
It is ironic that civil society has to some extent long suffered from a sub-par journalistic presence because the link between serious journalism and healthy democracy is naturally present. Journalism has always been core to a healthy civil society. After all, people need to be able to discern what is going on around them to be able to take action on what matters to them in a timely and accurate manner. As one of our contributors noted, “I gave because I believe in the collective work of the sector and in good journalism. The Quarterly is an engaging representation of both.”
There are a few different types of journalism. There is the first hand observation sort, where the weather reporter lashes herself to a post during the hurricane or embeds himself in a battle zone, and then there is the sort that is more attached to deep investigative research. Both are important and both need to be contextualized in order to make sense to the reader. That always involves some measure of analysis so the journalist is wise to present his or her point of view clearly so that the reader does not feel that the wool is being pulled over his or her eyes.
Recently, we read a fascinating speech that journalism guru Jay Rosen posted on his site titled “Covering Wicked Problems.” Rosen discusses the difficulty in covering the types of issues where “there is no one right way to view the problem, no definitive formulation.” He writes, “There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.”
I imagine this sounds pretty familiar to you. Civil society attends to “wicked problems” as a matter of course. Do we see hunger as a problem in and of itself or is it connected to rural development policies, monopolies in agri-business, entrenched poverty, the ever growing income gap between rich and poor…if we were to choose one of these as the lens through which we see the problem, would we be wrong? Rosen goes on to say that the problems will have solutions applied to them that will almost always fail and that these attempts will reveal further dimensions of the problem or they will produce unintended consequences. He points to climate change as an example of a “super wicked problem” in that it involves everyone on the entire planet as a stakeholder. But what we found most interesting about Rosen’s discussion was his description of what it would take to cover such stuff, because it describes, almost to a “t,” NPQ’s formulation of its new collaborative journalism practice.
What we try to do at NPQ is to follow stories over time, identifying interesting ideas or events and then noticing when they become a pattern or trend. We describe the political, regulatory, and legal environments associated with new developments and public policy proposals, the effects of advances in technology on civic action, new funding trends and financing mechanisms as they emerge, and the successes and failures of various approaches in various kinds of communities. One person covers the story and then another picks it up with an updated analysis and thus we serially write and inform history as we collectively make it. For instance, we figured out that there have been a number of recent mergers that cited the need for infrastructure for a faster pace of innovation. Those people writing newswires for NPQ will now keep their eyes out for how that infrastructure problem gets solved through mergers and networks and other “solutions.” But this problem of pacing is a relatively tame problem. More wicked is the problem of women’s reproductive rights. The way that story is evolving as a flashpoint this electoral season is important to more than just (just?) women’s issue advocates. It teaches us a lot that can be applied to other fields.
The intention is to produce excellent, trustworthy, current, contextualized information that people can take action on in time enough for it to matter. What follows in bold quotes are the ten ways that Jay Rosen imagines a “wicked problems beat” would operate.
1.“It would be a network, not a person.”
NPQ’s collaborative journalism model is based on this very concept. We see our lay journalists as curious, knowledgeable, skilled observers, each with his or her own point of view and knowledge base—each seeing the way things happen in their own community and the way things are discussed and implemented. Each can bring an element of analysis to the trends and events that are occurring in and around civil society but the whole of the discourse is well curated. Rosen writes, “Imagine a beat that lives on the Net and is managed by an individual journalist but ‘owned’ by the thousands who contribute to it.”
2.“The beat would be pattern-based.”
This is why NPQ is no longer solely “about nonprofits” but also about the collective approach to social issues that nonprofits and philanthropy are an important part of. When NPQ takes on economic development and how it is evolving, for instance, it would be ridiculous to end that observation at the boundary of organizational tax status. Notes Rosen, “Wicked problems turn up in business settings all the time, but this is not a business beat. Wicked problems originally emerged from urban planning and design. But this is not a public policy beat…this is a beat that would cut across newsroom verticals, looking for places where people get stuck because they are treating a wicked problem as if it were tame.”
3.“A classic narrative stands at the heart of the beat.”
You have to find where people are innovating and producing results and shine a light on it and then find the next instance. Rosen writes, “Agile development is learned behavior for coping with wicked problems. Whenever something like that happens, the wicked problems beat springs into action. Because that’s a great story. It is in fact the classic story on this beat: getting stuck, and then getting unstuck.”
4.“The beat would be global because wicked problems are a global phenomenon.”
This just seems too obvious to expand upon. But we will expand upon it at another time.
5.“The wicked problems beat can’t rely on the experts.”
Experts are often too deeply attached to a point of view to report on a problem in all of its wickedness. That is why we need people whose job it is to confront the reality of complexity each day and to keep the questioning as current and as dynamic as possible.
6.“The ‘stars’ of the beat would be people all over the world who seem to be good at wicked problems.”
And who better than you?
7.“The beat would treat denial as a news story.”
Rosen argues that denial “is the stage that precedes that classic moment when participants realize they have a wicked problem on their hands. Denial is a psychological category, so it is an inherently risky thing to report upon.” He adds, “The more educated and intelligent the denialist is, the more intractable the problem seems to be. People become expert in their own systems for ignoring reality. Systems become expert in concealing from their operators wicked problems.”
8.“The wicked problems beat would have to be a learning machine.”
Civil society deserves this. Although there has been a lot of happy talk about learning across siloes and boundaries of one sort or another, precious little has been done to ensure that it happens. Often, ill-fitting “solutions” are foist upon practitioners in resource-scarce situations. It is critical to make information available about how experiments—be they related to the arts, economic justice, housing programs, etc.—are progressing in such a way that all can make use of this information. Feeding this knowledge and these observations back is critical if we are to take ourselves seriously as an earth-changing sector.
9.“The beat would have a goal, a mission.”
“And I think I can say what it is,” Rosen writes. “Earlier, I said it is characteristic of wicked problems that key stakeholders define the problem differently. That plurality of frames is inevitable. But what’s not inevitable is the stakeholders’ mutual ignorance of each other’s incompatible starting points.”
10.“The wicked problems beat implies a view from somewhere.”
NPQ’s “somewhere” is in its mission to promote an active and engaged democracy, but we also want to see the world change in ways that make it more just and sustainable.
It is from this point of view that we curate the content on NPQ. In our view, that curation role is a sacred trust and our readers are fairly clear about (and willing to hold us to/contribute to) that covenant. You need an open flow of information that matters. It needs to be rigorous, credible, contextualized and accessible—even sometimes funny, but always sophisticated and respectful of your intelligence.
As another one of our contributors noted, “We decided to donate to NPQ because as the director of YNPN, I use it every day to keep up-to-date about what is happening in the sector and what people are talking about. When a resource is valuable to a community and you want it to stick around, you have to support it. Simple. I appreciate that the NPQ actually has a point of view as well and encourages NPs to not only think about how to build our organizations, but how our organizations are (or are not) building a better world.”
In wrapping up, Rosen concludes, “There has to be someone in this crowd today who is sitting there thinking: Hey, that’s nifty, this new beat you’re sketching for us, but realistically who’s going to pay for it?”
Guess who—YOU! Because only in that way will NPQ be primarily responsible to you and your information needs. Of course NPQ does have advertising and some grants, but as we grow and develop into a more important journalism site for civil society with you on our masthead, we need the ongoing support of YOU who value powerful journalism in this critically important sector.