Submitted on Tue, March 31, 2009

“Is the ‘theory of change’ behind traditional journalism out of date?” Great question. It came from David Bornstein, a journalist and author of How to Change the World, the bible of social entrepreneurship — and it betrayed a distinctive social-entrepreneur view of the world: What's important isn't so much what journalists do, but how their actions operate within larger systems to create social impact.

This was at last week's sixth annual Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England — the place for A-list social entrepreneurs to see and be seen. We put together a session on "Tomorrow’s News: Models for an Everyone-is-Media World," featuring Ashoka founder and CEO Bill Drayton, Knight Foundation vice-president Paula Ellis, and News & Knowledge Fellows Gregor Hackmack (co-founder of Germany's ParliamentWatch.org) and Sasa Vucinic (the guy behind the Media Development Loan Fund). The challenge: Could we get several hundred social entrepreneurs to crowdsource the future of journalism?

Back to Bornstein's question: “Do the new understandings into human behavior – i.e. that people are not ‘rational actors,' that aspirational stories are more influential in stimulating action than critical ones – require that journalism rethink how free presses help societies improve?”

Yes, it does. "Someone has hit the reboot button on journalism," as Sasa observed, and the old theory of change is indeed a relic. The problem, obviously, is coming up with the new theory. We are, he said, caught in the metaphorical “five minutes” between the point when an existing, well-understood system dies and the moment when a new system becomes concrete and comprehensible. Which is to say, a lot of stuff is happening, and we have no idea where it all leads.

Well, no: We have some idea. We know that rapidly changing technology and the rapidly escalating needs of information users are together producing three central outcomes: the dramatic decentralization of information; an explosion of innovation in storytelling; and the emergence in media of a powerful participative culture.

We also know that this confluence has raised a bunch of questions around the values that will underly future news & knowledge systems. Like, how do we equip people with the tools and skills to be effective, responsible information participants — and what are the means of distribution for those skills? And as the web erodes human connection, how will we adapt our old skills around trust, or learn new ones? What will it mean for information to be trustworthy, and how will we know when it is? How will we guarantee that information flows freely — and having left behind the monopoly press, how do we ensure competition in whatever new marketplace emerges?

A new theory of change, to return to Bornstein, will depend on the answers to all those questions. (It also will depend on the answer(s) to the pesky question: How will we pay for this? Fodder for another Skoll Forum.)

The need for new trust mechanisms — that resonated with this crowd. “With the exponential growth in online media,” asked one participant, “how do we address the blurring of the traditional distinction between facts and opinion? It’s fact rather than opinion which in the long-run changes people’s behavior.”

Is it? Paula Ellis observed that information per se is far less important than one’s relationship to that information. We rely on trusted sources to tell us which information is worthwhile and relevant to us. For several generations, those sources have taken the form of The New York Times, CNN, and the like. Now, as several folks pointed out, the pathway to trusted information wends through social networks: we’re enabling new agents of trust – professional colleagues, friends, friends of friends, whomever we’ve decided to follow on Twitter to act as our personal editors. Which may be at once compellingly democratic and flat-out dangerous: the risk, we agreed, is that the crowd will accept and distribute information that’s “just true enough.”

Ultimately, though, such networks will play an even greater role in linking information to action. More and more, Paula noted, news will assume and inform action, becoming more of a continuum; information that's urgent and relevant will, in fact, activate communities. Which is what news, and journalism at its best, has always done; Paula's point is that the linkage is tighter than ever, that the cycle time from information to action is shorter, that the emergence of online communities represent a profound opportunity to elevate citizenship.

That phenomenon, of course, could go either way. We could see historically passive audience members transformed into active, effective citizens, joining in networks whose leveraging of truthful, trustworthy information strengthens and advances democratic society. Or we could devolve into an era of self-interested hype, propaganda, and tyranny.

Social entrepreneurs tend to be almost pathologically optimistic, so even (or perhaps especially) those mired for now in hype, propaganda, and tyranny aspire to the transformational. Which is, of course, the only real way to rescue journalism; to ensure the foundational connection between information and democratic society; to find a new theory of change.