A good dissertation is a …

… done dissertation, as the saying goes, and I was thrilled to finish mine this summer. I defended it on July 15, made some final revisions in the weeks after, and finished up all the paperwork by early August. The diploma should be in the mail later this week. Now, that’s a good feeling!

As noted on my dissertation page, I conducted a case study of the Knight Foundation and its Knight News Challenge grant-funding contest to examine what’s happening with journalism innovation—or, to be more precise, to explore how change can occur within professions through the influence of a boundary-spanning agent, an embedded institutional player like Knight that can operate both within and apart from the professional field, thus “opening up” journalism to bring change back in.

I realize that no one—and I mean no one, not even the parents of Ph.D. students—reads dissertations, in large part because of the clunky format, but I’m making mine available online and would welcome any feedback you might have to offer as I revise this for academic publication. E-mail me at sclewis@umn.edu. Here’s the title and abstract, and a link to the full PDF:

Citation: Lewis, Seth C. (2010). Journalism Innovation and the Ethic of Participation: A Case Study of the Knight Foundation and its News Challenge (Unpublished dissertation). University of Texas, Austin.

The digitization of media has undermined much of the social authority and economic viability on which U.S. journalism relied during the 20th century. This disruption has also opened a central tension for the profession: how to reconcile the need for occupational control against growing opportunities for citizen participation. How that tension is navigated will affect the ultimate shape of the profession and its place in society.

This dissertation examines how the leading nonprofit actor in journalism, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has sought to help journalism innovate out of its professional crisis. This case study engages a series of mixed methods—including interviews, textual analysis, and secondary data analysis—to generate a holistic portrayal of how the Knight Foundation has attempted to transform itself and the journalism field in recent years, particularly through its signature Knight News Challenge innovation contest.

From a sociology of professions perspective, I found that the Knight Foundation altered the rhetorical and actual boundaries of journalism jurisdiction. Knight moved away from “journalism” and toward “information” as a way of seeking the wisdom of the crowd to solve journalism’s problems. This opening up of journalism’s boundaries created crucial space in which innovators, from inside and outside journalism, could step in and bring change to the field. In particular, these changes have allowed the concept of citizen participation, which resides at the periphery of mainstream newswork, to become embraced as an ethical norm and a founding doctrine of journalism innovation. The result of these efforts has been the emergence of a new rendering of journalism—one that straddles the professional-participatory tension by attempting to “ferry the values” of professional ideals even while embracing new practices more suited to a digital environment.

Ultimately, this case study matters for what it suggests about professions in turbulent times. Influential institutions can bring change to their professional fields by acting as boundary-spanning agents—stepping outside the traditional confines of their field, altering the rhetorical and structural borders of professional jurisdiction to invite external contribution and correction, and altogether creating the space and providing the capital for innovation to flourish.

  • Jason Fochtman

    Seth,
    Hey it’s Jason Fochtman. I took your social media seminar some months back. I just poked through your monster of a paper after seeing it mentioned on Ryan Sholin’s blog. I bet you’re glad you’re done. Question: When you talked to those players in non-profit journalism, what are their ideas in terms of sustainability? More important, do you think they could be viable solutions? I really like what’s come from the the like of the Texas Tribune and California Watch. Hope you are doing well.

  • Hi Jason, and sorry for the long delay in replying to your comment. … When you talk about the most prominent non-profit journalism organizations (like Texas Tribune, California Watch, Voice of San Diego, etc.) — well, I didn’t interview those folks specifically. I spoke with Knight News Challenge winners who intended to start news organizations with their Knight money, and most of those were on a smaller scale than TT, VoSD, and the like (although the Knight Foundation does fund many of those major non-profit sites).

    So, for those particular answers, you might want to consult the good coverage that Nieman Lab (a blog that I wrote for on occasion) has done on the questions you mentioned: e.g., “Seeking Sustainability,” part 1 and part 2, followed by several more.

    Hope that helps a bit, and I hope all is well with your work!