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Stronger together: How journalism fits into civic infrastructure

Journalism is necessary for civic life not because it’s the only kind of information that matters, but because it’s a vital part of the networks that connect us

There have been some great things written lately about journalism being critical civic infrastructure. (Feel free to share any of your favorite pieces in the comments.) That term and that argument have also been used to make the case for policy and funding to boost local journalism.

As the guest curator for Gather in July 2022, I wanted to explore this idea and find out what it means to the many people working on engaged journalism. And since I am a big nerd, I also wanted to explore the idea itself. This post presents some of the core ideas that ground my work in community listening and local news ecosystems, and offers some concrete suggestions for how to practice engagement in a way that helps us all build that infrastructure together.

When we think of infrastructure, we tend to think of roads, bridges, the electrical grid, the internet, etc. Infrastructure carries what we need. We can plug in and access it, or we can use it to send things out. It’s a common resource we all rely on. Civic infrastructure refers to the networks of people, organizations and institutions we plug into to participate in civic life. It’s where we go to find out where to vote, how to volunteer, when and where to protest, how to connect with our neighbors and how to access opportunities for a better life. The most obvious forms of civic infrastructure are public libraries, schools and nonprofits, but they can also be social groups like bowling leagues, or even individual people who are highly connected and helpful.

Among the challenges journalism is facing is its lack of connection to civic infrastructure. We all know less quality news is being produced, but even when quality local reporting is available, people don’t know about it if the people and institutions who produce it are not linked up to the rest of the community. There are many reasons for this: paywalls, low literacy, lack of trust, lack of usefulness, the general noisiness of our lives, and the fact that sometimes news isn’t for so much as it’s about the people who need information. Community engagement helps overcome this problem, as does collaboration.

As we make the case that journalism is essential, we’ll make that case more effectively if we recognize we’re part of something greater: a network of resources people turn to for all kinds of information and understanding. The more we know what specific value journalism brings to that infrastructure, and the more we can communicate that value to other parts of the network, the stronger journalism — and more importantly the community as a whole — will be.

Communications infrastructure theory

I find myself thinking about communications infrastructure theory frequently in my own community listening work as I map out the ways people in a community get local news and information they trust (more on that below). At the risk of oversimplifying, here is my overview:

Communications infrastructure theory (CIT) came out of research University of Southern California communications scholar Sandra Ball-Rokeach and her colleagues did in the dense, diverse communities of Los Angeles through the Metamorphosis Project. A neighborhood’s overall health and well-being depends on its communications infrastructure — that is, residents’ abilities to tell, hear and share stories.

There are two components to a neighborhood’s communications infrastructure. First, there’s the storytelling networks, made up of three kinds of storytellers:

  • People who live in the neighborhood and their connections with one another
  • Community and nonprofit organizations that serve the neighborhoods
  • Media that serve a particular ethnic group and/or geographic area

When these storytellers create a conversation about the neighborhood — its problems, opportunities, and events — people are able to create the sense and reality of belonging to a community. Storytelling is the basic way that all communities are created, whether they be neighborhoods or nations.

The second part of the infrastructure is the environment — or “communications action context” — in which storytelling occurs. That environment consists of many things, tangible and intangible. Are there libraries, schools, parks, and places to meet? Are those places clean, accessible, and inviting? Is there affordable, quality internet access? Do people feel safe enough in the neighborhood to gather outside and chat? The quality of the environment affects how well storytellers function — whether they’re able to tell and shape the neighborhood story, which in turn affects the community’s overall health.

All this to say, your news organization is part of a larger network of people, organizations and informally connected folks. Your reporting comes out of those networks, and it gets shared and responded to in those networks — hopefully. If you’re actively pursuing community engagement, you probably have even closer, overlapping and complex relationships and connections. Engagement is a process of cultivating those connections and building stories together.

And all of that happens within the larger environment, which engagement teams learn to think about consciously: If I put information online, will people see it? Would a flyer be better? A public event at the library? How do I build stronger and more resilient bonds of trust with people in this community, so that when there’s a crisis, we can get the story right and get people what they need? Who can I collaborate with?

Asset-based community development

Another way of thinking about infrastructure is asset-based community development (ABCD), a school of community organizing practiced by countless organizations in fields like education, economic development. One of the things I like about it is that understanding the concepts makes it easy to have a conversation with community organizers — it’s like having a common language.

Journalists are generally conditioned to think in terms of the negative — problems, conflicts, crises. That mindset leads to a strong negativity bias that — believe me! — people notice and feel alienated by. Many of us want to do better, to report on solutions and to engage with communities that have historically been underserved or badly served by journalism. But sometimes the way we approach those communities comes across all wrong, as though we only see the negatives, the deficits, and therefore see and present the people in that community as lacking or less-than.

Using an asset-based approach as opposed to a deficit approach means we’re looking at what strengths are present in the community, at who is working on solutions, at what can be built on. We see people differently when we think this way. We treat them with more respect and regard them as having more power, and more potential.

Again, not to oversimplify, but the basics of ABCD involve thinking consciously about what the civic assets are, who they are, where they are, and seeing how they can all fit together. What practical thing — meeting space, volunteer hours, subject-matter expertise — does each of these civic orgs have to offer? It’s a bit like the old stone soup folktale, where people who think of themselves as starving realize they each have something to contribute to the pot, and then everybody eats.

A key idea of ABCD is getting people together and asking: What can we do together, right now, with what we have, before we ask anybody for anything? It’s an empowering way to think about solving problems, because you’re not waiting for a savior or money to fall from the sky. And when it’s clear that something’s missing, the group can be strategic about what they do ask for and what specific need the ask (money, tools, technology, etc) will fill.

Asset mapping

Let’s get practical. When I do a project, I start by mapping the civic assets in that place. I’m particularly interested in learning about trusted civic institutions and the informal networks people turn to. These can be anything from conventional civic orgs like the League of Women Voters to faith groups to food banks to the liars table at the country store. That map looks different in each community.

Some of this mapping I can do through desk research, but it’s far better to ask people who live in a place — especially specific neighborhoods or communities of ethnicity, religions, language, etc. Asset mapping is ideally a participatory activity, and it’s a perfect opportunity for engagement. Bring people together to draw their own map of community assets, and to discuss that broader context in which they operate. (There are many, many guides out there on how to do this. Here’s one I like, though it’s not journalism specific.)

Add some CIT to the broth: What are the storytelling networks, besides your newsroom, and besides media in general? You can find out by asking people where they turn to find out what’s happening in their community. What is the greater context in which everyone operates, and how can that context be improved for everyone?

You’ll see where the bonds are and where the gaps are, and how journalism fits into the bigger picture. Are these gaps that your organization can help fill? What particular value does journalism bring to the table? You’ll see that value so much more clearly when it’s set before a backdrop of all these other groups. These insights can improve your reporting and sourcing, your audience development, your engagement efforts, even your distribution.

The winning argument for journalism’s necessity isn’t that it’s the only kind of civic information infrastructure that matters; it’s that journalism fills very specific kinds of gaps in the greater network of information, and it connects other parts of the infrastructure, too. We are stronger together.

Further reading:

The Metamorphosis Project

Applications of Communication Infrastructure Theory By Holley A. Wilkin, Meghan Bridgid Moran, Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach, Carmen Gonzalez & Yong-Chan Kim

Values behind Asset-Based Community Development, the ABCD Institute at DePaul University

Journalism is a public good. Let the public make it. By Darryl Holliday

Build for a crisis: Ideas for the future of local news By Sarah Alvarez

Why a new civic and social infrastructure is needed to equip Cleveland residents to hold local government accountable By Lawrence Caswell

Cross-field collaboration: How and why journalists and civil society organizations around the world are working together By Sarah Stonbely

Mapping the news and information ecosystem (2013) By Peggy Holman, Journalism That Matters

JMR’s Participatory Journalism Playbook by jesikah maria ross

Fiona is the founder of Branchhead Consulting. She also served as Gather’s July Guest Curator.

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Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is the founder of Branchhead Consulting. She builds stronger local news ecosystems through research, engagement, organizing and facilitation.