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Re-defining Journalism Education: Using systems thinking and design to revolutionize the future of storytelling

Format: Papers, RSD7, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Chaplin Heather, Christopherson Kayla

The problem: Journalism education has not kept pace with the growing complexity of professional practice.

The first crisis in journalism had to do with transitioning to a vastly more complex digital environment. Now, journalism is struggling to sustain itself amidst outdated business models, fractured audiences, declining trust, and a White House bent on undermining the whole operation. At stake is a vital part of the checks and balances system of a functioning democracy.

Journalism + Design is a forward-looking, iterative education program preparing students and professionals alike to function in the complex ecosystem of contemporary journalism. We use systems thinking and design practices to help journalists better understand the interconnected nature of the problems they face, both as journalists having to operate within a complex adaptive system as well as practitioners and future practitioners expected to report on and explain the most important stories of our times – climate change, the effects of unfettered global capitalism, income inequality, racism, crumbling democracies. These are all stories of complex adaptive systems, or what Rittel and Webber called, wicked problems – impossible to even name, let alone solve, and with boundaries that blur into other wicked problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973).

Design and systems journalism initiative

This abstract seeks to outline the theory and practice behind our efforts to bring design practices and systems thinking into journalism education for both students and professionals. As mentioned above, the problem for journalists is two-fold:

First, how do we build a sustainable system by which news is gathered, verified, synthesized, and distributed in a way that is independent of powerful interests? Many people talk about “saving the newspapers” or in other ways propping up existing entities. French economist, Julia Cagé, in her book, Saving the Media, argues that what will fix the news is a new, not-for-profit business model (Cagé, 2016). There’s Victor Pickard who, in his piece for The Guardian, recognizes that traditional ways of thinking about the news are not helping the industry, but still recommends a new, non-commercial business model (Pickard, 2009). Our analysis is that what is at stake is not so much the longevity of existing manifestations, but rather ensuring that some system for doing the above-mentioned work itself exists in the future – whatever that might look like.

Second, how do we prepare journalists to tell the most important stories of our times – those of complex adaptive systems, or, wicked problems? This does not require merely digital skills, which is the strategy of most news organizations. Rather, it requires the ability to understand the forces behind events in the news, the interconnections between those forces, the non-linear natures of how events occur and multiply, and how to identify feedback loops and leverage points.

A systems approach to redesigning journalism education and professional development is necessary to address these problems. The Journalism + Design initiative involves identifying leverage points for interventions in the education and professional spheres as well as opportunities for inspiring public discourse, such as publishing papers and popular articles, launching a podcast, and convening open workshops with community partners.

The additional challenge is how to foster a change in attitude among the future of the journalism community from one of trying to solve the problem of the crisis in journalism to one seeking to sustain a healthy system of journalism.

Re-designing journalism education and professional development

A significant part of the work of this initiative has been the development of an undergraduate journalism major at The New School in New York that marries fundamental journalistic practices and ethics with systems and design practice. Our definition of design is a set of flexible processes for navigating unknown environments. We define systems thinking as the practice of studying wholes rather than parts in isolation, studying patterns of change over time and identifying driving forces.

This work has been primarily done through the Journalism + Design program at The New School. The program started four years ago with seven classes and 30 majors. Today, we offer 27 classes, have nearly 100 majors and see 406 students taking our classes. It has already become the second biggest major in the school.

The excitement generated by the program among professionals led to the development of workshops and events outside the college, such as systems thinking for beat reporters, basic design process workshops, and systems and design support for projects around complex topics like homelessness, gentrification, and gerrymandering. In addition, the initiative has also begun work fostering systems and design approaches to journalism among community leaders in underserved urban neighbourhoods in order to help build informal information networks to serve needs unmet by professional news organizations or the closing of local professional news outlets.

The aim is to equip journalists with the ability to surface and diversify story ideas and sources, explore complex relationships, be more resilient in the face of uncertainty, identify how the structure of complex systems dictate outputs and consequences and develop and maintain participatory and collaborative partnerships with non-media organizations and community members.


In this presentation, we provide an overview of the theories and intellectual work behind this initiative as well as surface learning to be gleaned from the work itself. This presentation provides the audience with years of innovative research, curriculum, and insights, and, since playful experimentation is a key tenant of how our program was designed, our presentation will incorporate how our initiative actually operates in the field. More specifically, it looks at how systems thinking and design cooperates, how our program has integrated them into fast-paced, overworked newsrooms, and what this initiative means for sustainable journalism and democracy at large.


1. Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences,4(2), 155-169. doi:10.1007/bf01405730

2. Cagé, J. (2016). Saving the Media: Capitalism, Crowdfunding, and Democracy (A. Goldhammer, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

3. Pickard, V. (2009, July 23). Take the profit motive out of news. Retrieved from




Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2018
Title: Re-defining Journalism Education: Using systems thinking and design to revolutionize the future of storytelling
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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First published: 2 October 2018
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