Last spring, when I came to the Reynolds Journalism Institute to meet with past and future Reynolds Fellows, I spent a considerable amount of time just taking notes.
The formal description of my project for this year was committed to paper, but as I talked about it with this group of smart thinkers, I began to realize that synopsis began in the middle of a sentence.
I’d spent more than a year having the conversation in my own head about emerging networks and what they can mean for journalism. It was clear from the conversation last April that the topic was a worthy one for inquiry; we were all discussing how information and ideas about innovation in journalism are moving in new and interesting networks.
But it was also clear that there was not a common understanding by what we mean by networks. While I can’t presume to define that common understanding, I did realize pretty quickly that I needed to be clear about what I meant when I talked about networks.
A little reading over the summer helped me to establish some guideposts for my work in looking at emerging networks for journalism innovation. When I think about networks, I’m not thinking about the professional networks we’ve been familiar with in journalism over the years, associations that are built around professional identity and job title. I’m thinking about networks that are asking questions and identifying the best ways to do work.
That thinking led me back to the work of sociologist Etienne Wenger, whose thinking I first encountered when I read Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody.’’ Wenger’s work describes the kind of learning and sharing I’m interested in exploring not as networks but as “communities of practice.’’
If the classic dictionary definition of a network describes “a group of people who exchange information, contacts, and experiences for professional or social purposes,’’ Wenger’s description of communities of practice moves into a more active kind of sharing.
His definition especially speaks to the journalist in me because of its emphasis on commitment and action:
“ Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.’’ (emphasis mine).
Wenger makes the point that communities of practice are no new idea – people have been behaving this way since the dawn of time. But the ubiquity of digital tools as a means of connection means that communities of practice are no longer limited by geography or time.
As I’ve been thinking about communities of practice and what they mean to journalism, I’ve been going back to the common language that lies at the core of all acts of journalism. Whether we are formally trained in journalism school or come to it down other paths, all acts of journalism are framed around answering the questions of who, what, when, where, why and how.
As journalism transforms in the digital age, it sometimes seems practitioners have been focused on the question of why. There’s been a great deal of resistance and more than a little nostalgia framed in that question.
I’m more interested in the emerging networks –- the communities of practice – that are focused on the question of how. How does journalism evolve? How do we get better at it? How does journalism increase its relevance and become more inclusive? How do we use the wondrous array of tools available to best effect?
That’s where my conversation is headed here and in my fellowship during the coming weeks: Focusing on the importance of “how.’’