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The Crisis in Journalism Is a Wicked Problem

Photo Credit: Oscar Aguilar (Flickr)

go As 2018 gets underway, I have a suggestion: let’s stop looking for a solution to the future of journalism.

At first it was: Get online! Teach reporters to code! Build a commenting system!

Then: Go mobile! Get on Facebook!

Then: Oops, close the commenting system! Video is the answer!

Now: Forget video! Get off Facebook! Engagement! Trust!

Someone, somewhere, once said that the definition of insanity is to keep trying the same thing over and over, expecting different results. That’s what we’ve been doing in our quest for a solution to the crisis in journalism. A group of smart, dedicated, well-meaning people keep banging their heads against a brick wall, telling themselves and each other that the next head bang will, surely, knock the wall down.

If we were to form an AA-style group for people who have dedicated themselves to solving the crisis in journalism, the first step would surely be to accept that the problem is unsolvable.

The trick is to not be depressed by the lack of a solution, but inspired by it.

* * *

In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, design theorists at the University of California, Berkeley, coined the term “wicked problem.” They were referring to problems that had reached such complexity and were so unstable that traditional problem-solving techniques weren’t sufficient. Despite people’s predictions earlier in the century, poverty hadn’t gone away. Nor crime. Nuclear proliferation was becoming a thing. Rittel and Webber said these kinds of problems — “wicked problems” — could never even be fully defined, let alone solved. People understood the sheer number of interconnecting factors, but couldn’t agree on what those factors were. The boundaries of wicked problems blur into the boundaries of other wicked problems.

Rittel and Webber came up with ten defining features of wicked problems. One of the most intriguing is that they have “no stopping rule,” meaning there will never be a point when your work on the problem is done. Wicked problems are not engineering problems. They can’t be solved.

* * *

It has become obvious to me that the crisis in journalism is a wicked problem. It’s a tangled knot that is changing and creating new knots all the time. Massive technical disruption, fraying trust, collapsed business models, fractured audiences, rising propaganda machines, a White House bent on discrediting the whole enterprise. And of course, all these factors blur into other wicked problems, like changes in information technology, crumbling institutions, political polarization, shifting demographics, and so on.

In other words, we will never be able to properly name the crisis in journalism, let alone solve it.

But something sort of miraculous happens once you let go of the idea that you ever could. You start to imagine other approaches.

* * *

Have you ever noticed how often we use metaphors of war to describe our attempts to solve problems? The war on poverty, terror, drugs. But the more you try to bomb these problems into oblivion, the worse and more costly they get. The truth is you will never beat, defeat, vanquish, or otherwise destroy in some pleasantly satisfying way a wicked problem.

If we want to see real journalism flourish in the future, we’re going to need to reconsider our approach. What if we dropped the military language and thought instead about gardening? If you’ve ever gardened, you know it requires a lot of hard work as well as a lot of imagination, patience, and care.

If you’ve ever so much as kept a plant alive, you know you would never think about solving a garden. You’d think about cultivating it.

What would our approach to the crisis in journalism look like if we saw ourselves as caretakers, rather than crusaders? If we saw the future of journalism not as a campaign to win, but as an ecosystem in need of constant tending? Can we give up looking for a solution and dedicate ourselves instead to a lifelong practice of observing, adjusting, intervening, and redesigning as needed?

* * *

People who work on wicked problems — in, say, public policy or the environment — don’t look for grand solutions. They study the system itself, paying close attention to the relationships between the parts. Then they look for leverage points, spots in the system where a relatively low-cost intervention could have an outsized effect. (Think of universal kindergarten as an anti-poverty measure, for example.)

This sort of work has to be done carefully, because any change will affect the whole system and can have unintended consequences. (Think of the rise of bot-driven propaganda on social media.)

At Journalism + Design, we’ve begun a wicked problem process. Right now, we’re interviewing dozens of people across many fields to map out the problems in journalism. We’re not focused on any one factor, but are looking instead at how all the various factors are interconnected. Then, we’ll bring together a working group to sketch out possible future scenarios based on the research. We all know what’s gone wrong. But what needs to go right?

Last, we’ll identify where small interventions and a commitment to ongoing redesign might make a big difference.

* * *

It’s an identity shift for sure. Victory is exciting. Who doesn’t want to feel they’ve gotten rid of a problem once and for all? But at the end of the day, what do we want? To kill all the snails? Or keep the garden alive?

The snails will be back anyway.