ISOJ 2010: Talking about the Knight News Challenge and news innovation

It’s been a very full two days of the International Symposium on Online Journalism here in Austin. This afternoon I got a chance to unveil some key findings from my ongoing dissertation research, which analyzes the Knight News Challenge in particular and the Knight Foundation more generally. It was a lot of fun, problems with the microphone notwithstanding!

My interest was in assessing how News Challenge winners negotiate the tension between professional control (embodied in the “occupational ideology” of journalism described by Mark Deuze) and open participation (see “participatory culture” described by Henry Jenkins). This question of professional-vs-participatory tension isn’t all that new to the literature on online journalism, but the unique placement of the Knight News Challenge — having something of a participatory bent, while being funded in a nonprofit/alternative fashion (see Quadrant 4 in PowerPoint slide #4, below) — makes it an interesting case study because it’s so different from the legacy press that usually gets so much attention in the sociology of journalism. Let me put it more simply: Knowing how “news innovators” wrestle with issues of control, and how that relates to the way they define journalism, may begin to tell us something about the assumptions (or “logic”) of journalism innovation as a whole.

In summary, I found that news innovators (i.e., KNC winners who intended to start news organizations/platforms) were able to render unproblematic the tension of professional control vs. open participation because they had made a key shift in mind-set: They saw journalism as an open practice to be shared rather than a proprietary profession to be protected. By making this profession-to-practice shift in perception, news innovators could “pull apart” journalism (rhetorically speaking) to preserve its best principles while discarding outmoded practices, all while embracing a new ethic of participation — this idea that journalism not only can be participatory, but actually should be. I saw this in the way news innovators talked about their confidence in crowd wisdom (or collective intelligence) and their interest in “community management”; this emphasis on collective knowledge, as opposed to the gatekeeping expertise of an individual professional, emerged as a key theme. However, I also found that certain challenges have made it difficult for news innovators to achieve these aims in practice, raising questions about sustainability beyond the life of nonprofit grant funding.

There’s much more to this, so if you’re interested check out the crib notes, or coverage from Alfred Hermida. A number of folks have asked for the full paper — and I sure appreciate the interest! — but I need a bit more time to tidy things up. These findings represent one chapter of my dissertation, which in its entirety should be finished in a month or two.

In all of this, the best part is this little anecdote: When I got home tonight, I learned that my 7-year-old son watched my talk via the live webcast. But, after just a few minutes into the presentation, Jackson turned to his mom and said in exasperation, “I haven’t understood a word Dad has said!”

Finally, the slides are below: