In July 2010, I completed my dissertation in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. I conducted a case study of the Knight Foundation and its influence in shaping the innovation of journalism by seeking to change the profession’s boundaries and norms. (You can find a quick-read synopsis that I wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab.)

This study was funded by the $5,000 annual research award from AEJMC’s Mass Communication & Society Division. Below you’ll find the title, abstract, and a link to the downloadable PDF. As I prepare this for academic publication, I welcome your feedback: e-mail me at sclewis@umn.edu.

Seth C. Lewis – Dissertation – Journalism Innovation and the Ethic of Participation: A Case Study of the Kn…

Journalism Innovation and the Ethic of Participation: A Case Study of the Knight Foundation and its News Challenge (PDF)


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.