Introducing 'systems journalism': creating an ecosystem for independent media

| 5th June 2018
Telegraph newsroom

Journalism on the grid - the newsroom of the Daily Telegraph.

Systems will decide our fate. How the system of capitalism continues to interact with natural systems - and whether this will cause irreversible change to the climate system - will determine the history of humanity. So can 'systems thinking' transform the way journalists understand and report this world of systems? BRENDAN MONTAGUE, editor of The Ecologist, argues it can and must

Like our natural world, this informational world has also been devastated. What we have seen is the emergence of a very few monopoly companies which have made vast profits by transforming a rich news ecology into something akin to a supermarket carpark.

We are witnessing a dramatic reduction in biodiversity in the natural world. Humans, who represent 0.01 percent of life on earth, have destroyed 83 percent of wildlife in the last 150 years, devastated the planet.

Agriculture - and in particular the rearing of animals for meat - has resulted in a significant reduction in the range and number of wild animals.

Simultaneously - and apparently separately - we have witnessed an equal reduction in the diversity of our media. There once thrived in the United Kingdom thousands of local newspapers which were close to and directly accountable to their readers.

Viewing the world

These newspapers had their own reporters in Fleet Street, sending news back from Parliament and the courts.

This was alongside a national newspaper ecology which had dozens of titles, which thrived by sending thousands of reports around the country and also from ‘feeding’ on the rich diversity of information from local newspapers.

Like our natural world, this informational world has also been devastated. What we have seen is the emergence of a very few monopoly companies which have made vast profits by taking complexity and reducing it to simplicity, transforming a rich news ecology into something akin to a supermarket carpark.

The comparison between the natural environment and the news environment is a strong metaphor. But it may be more than that.

We can examine this by using systems thinking. Firstly, I need to be explicit about my subjectivity and explain the standpoint from which I am viewing the world. I will keep this to two points. 

Interconnected systems

The first point is ontological. I begin with the proposition that everything in our universe is changing, in every way through all time. It is also changing in a particular way. This is expressed through the second law of thermodynamics - entropy. This can be expressed more simply, and more poetically, as "things fall apart".

The second point is about my ethics and our human agency. Systems are important to us because systems tell us something about how, in this constantly changing world, we can sustain some kind of order - some kind of continuity.

By this I mean: how can we - as a recognisable species - survive. There is an ethical decision in deciding survival is important. It is subjective, and it changes how I - and very many others - see the world.

If you don’t care about survival, you can happily ignore the lessons that can be drawn from systems as they exist in nature. So what do we learn from natural systems?

We can look at nature as a collection of nested and interconnected systems. There has been 3.5 billion years of life on earth. In that time, things that are most resilient and which extend across the most time are most abundant today. And these things are open systems. 

Things that are cyclical

These systems are defined by being separate but intimately related to what is around them. They can be abstracted out as single things. They have a boundary between the system, and everything else.

Open systems have a semi-permeable membrane. It keeps parts of the system from breaching out, but allows some things in. Open systems exchange energy or information with their environment. They are self sustaining. In terms of nature, life systems repeat themselves through birth and rebirth.

In nature, things that function in this way remain in existence in some form over very long periods of time. You are descended, it seems most likely, from the very first life form. Things that do not function in this way, are only around for a relatively short period of time.

Things that are linear will over time either become too much or too little. Things that are cyclical - where waste becomes food for example - will continue for significantly longer. Systems that function with homeostasis - everything from the human body to the climate - will retain integrity across long periods of time.  

Humans - who have been in this world in their current form for perhaps less than 100,000 years - find themselves surrounded by things that are cyclical, that are systems that reproduce themselves. Everything else has withered away or subsumed all around it.

Transfer information

There are, therefore, many useful concepts for sustainability that come from systems theory. The most important for me - when thinking about both nature and the media - is diversity.

The second is that fact that any system is directly and strongly related to its natural environment. It coevolves with its environment. Its ability to sustain itself rests on its impact on its environment. This is where it derives the matter, the energy, the information, to sustain its own continued existence.

So, how do we usefully transpose these lessons from nature into the media industry? Firstly, we need to understand each media organisation as a system.

It is made up of people, which are each systems and when working together form new, larger systems. The function of the media organisation is to gather information from its environment, to metabolise it - to sort it, select it, to write it into articles - and then to publish it.

This media organisation also needs readers. It needs to transfer information out into the world around it. The media organisation is like a dung beetle, nature's muck-spreader. 

Media organisation

The dung beetle takes the energy from its environment, and then through a series of complex processes transforms this into information, into DNA, which is then passed on through to its tiny little dung beetles offspring. In this process, the structure and pattern of ‘a dung beetle’ continues. It's waste is returned to the environment and the cycle continues. 

The media organisation likewise creates an immediate output - printed pages, website pages - which is exported to the environment around it. It also creates a structure and pattern - its staff, its offices (if there are any), its email lists and its regular readers, which allows it to continue to function and exist.

To have a single news organisation which functions correctly, which can be sustained over many years and decades, you need a vibrant and diverse ecosystem. You need an abundance of matter, energy and information.

You need human beings - journalists - to perform the metabolism of information so the end result is useful and valuable and not just white noise, or worse: Twitter.

The comparison between the systems of nature and the media organisation as a system is useful beyond being a simple metaphor for a second, vital reason.

Complex nature

This is because it is the same thing threatening and disrupting our natural environment and our media environment - and that thing is also a system.

We tend to call this system, 'capitalism'. Capitalism at its root involves an investor advancing £100 and then at the end of a year expecting that to be £110 (if they invest well).

For the investor, this extra £10 is a product of her wise investment choices. But if we transpose the first law of thermodynamics - that matter cannot come from nothing or go back to nothing - to the social, to the the financial world, we conclude that this £10 cannot simply appear from nowhere.

Indeed, this £10 has come from a customer in exchange for some raw material (nature) which has been transformed through work (which is also a form of nature) into a commodity for sale - say, a newspaper. The system of capitalism is all the structures and patterns which make this investment function.

The schools, the offices, the factories, the bank balances and the people. The media. The work of capitalism reproduces this system. And the work is a form of metabolism. It is the transformation of complex nature (trees, fields, animals, people) into simple objects or commodities used for exchange.

Grows exponentially

The exchange brings the investor her £10. Nature is depleted and the symbol of money is increased. That is the core purpose and function of the capitalist system.

The problem is that with investment - and with capitalism more generally - you are looking at exponential growth. The following year the investor will advance £110 and expect £121. After a decade this single investment has become £259 - and after a century, £1,378,061.

This is great for the investor, but that £1.3m is also represented in depleted nature - in trees becoming carbon dioxide, in oil becoming plastics, becoming landfill. Capitalism as a system achieves economic growth, exponential growth, by metabolising - by breaking down - all the complex systems in its own environment and replacing it with literal rubbish.

We know that we cannot sustain exponential growth on a finite planet. Even if we do nothing, the capitalist system cannot function for ever. It’s a non-sustainable system and therefore a poor choice for humans who value continued human existence.

The investment of the single investor grows exponentially. In perfect conditions, all the investments grow in this way. What we then witness is the accumulation of capital. However smart or dumb - think Donald Trump - the investor is, the very fact they hold capital is a fairly good indication that sooner or later they will hold even more capital. This capital 'clumps'; diverse ecosystems of companies become dominated by complex monopolies, and then pure monopolies. 

Slow, lucrative, death

So what has capitalism done to the ecology of newspapers? It is a clear example of this very same process. Rupert Murdoch inherited his father’s newspaper business. That was the best decision he ever made.

Murdoch began essentially with our £259 investment described above. He used this investment to buy rival newspapers, asset stripping, reducing quality, firing journalists, initiating price wars and dominating markets.

In the 1980s he bought four newspapers - The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and The News of the World. He took a complex ecosystem and stripped it into a monopoly. He transformed a complex ecosystem into numbers on a spreadsheet.

Murdoch sacked printers, he sacked journalists. He replaced high quality information - extracted from the natural environment through great effort - with made-up stories. He ripped stories off from rival papers, and local papers, and contributed nothing to the cost of those news organisations. He forced a price war on his competitors, reducing the input of money and confining smaller rivals to starvation. 

The newspaper monopoly now dominant in the UK has so rapidly consumed everything of value in its environment, and so polluted that environment with disinformation, that they can no longer function as newspapers themselves. "Newspapers are dying," goes a quote attributed to Murdoch. "It will be slow, lucrative, death". 

Off Grid

Indeed, we can almost say today that there are no newspapers left. The latest stage of decay is George Osborne selling news copy to major corporate monopoly companies for £500,000 from each firm. This means today there is no 'mainstream' newspaper industry, just a public relations industry.

I am writing this in advance of the Off Grid festival. The concept of being 'off grid' was first introduced to me by Nick Rosen, author of How to Live Off Grid, as a way of living: setting up a home with its own renewable energy supply, its own water system for both for inputs and outflow.

It can also mean establishing a vegetable garden so that the home becomes autonomous in producing food. This is essentially creating a sustainable, largely self-contained system.

But I can't help but take the idea of off grid further. For me, one grid that exists is the mainstream media. This is now a complex monopoly - a single grid. This is a hierarchical system. It is fixed, sclerotic. And this form of media is simply part of a wider grid - the system of capitalism.

To be off grid can mean more than building a home and disconnecting from the National Grid. It is also ‘growing’ a complex, interconnected network of systems disconnected from and separate to capitalist corporate media, from the world of investment and exchange. 

Finding systems

This is an ecosystem that is diverse, self sustaining, mutually supporting and co-evolving. It is resilient communities that are mutually dependent and therefore independent. It is taking back control. Off grid communities need to share information, they need "off grid journalism". And off grid journalism, to be sustainable, needs to be "systems journalism".

So where - finally - we arrive at systems journalism. I feel we are about to witness the emergence of systems journalism in two ways. The first is the function of journalism itself. The second is how new organisations of journalism will learn to remain autonomous, and become sustainable. 

This first point is about the subject matter of journalism. What should we write about? And I would argue that what we have in our newspapers is the very opposite of systems journalism.

The news is about personalities, it is about celebrities. It is a distraction, and fundamentally a waste of our time and attention. We simply do not need to know what some celebrity says on Twitter. If we do want to know this, we can search Twitter. More proudly, what that person said on Twitter is unlikely to really impact our lives, unless we want it to. 

The death of the mainstream media leaves fertile ground. There is an unmet social need for good journalism. What we need to start doing as journalists is finding systems, examining systems, explaining the importance of systems. Systems, understood in this way, can include major corporations, states and governments, schools - even football teams.

Social inputs

This is because the single most important issues of the day are at their core about the functioning - and malfunctioning - of systems. How does capitalism function within nature? What impact is the fossil fuel industry having on the climate system?

Can we yet imagine a system of human civilisation that works with - and within - the system of the earth's biosphere? Are we any closer to entering "the Noosphere". How can we transfer from the current system to this imagined system? How does change in systems work?

These are the questions that we as a human species need to confront in the coming years, and decades - if we wish to survive.

Journalism that examines and understands systems can form a useful part of a civic society ecosystem that can change or influence these meta-systems. When it comes to company sized systems, this reporting involves understanding the inputs, outputs, feedbacks, structures and patterns of the organisation. Knowing this, a journalist and her readers are better placed to influence its function - for good or ill.

By understanding the governance and structure of ExxonMobil, by explicitly understanding how as a system it relies on material input (oil, investment) and also social inputs (trust of its stakeholders, the work performed by its management and its workforce) we can interact with that system in a more impactful way.

Creative sharing

We can find the inputs that allow ExxonMobil to sustain itself as a system, we can form an analysis of which of these inputs are most important - and which are most vulnerable.

We as journalists can transfer this knowledge to civic society groups and individual campaigners. The news organisation gathers information about ExxonMobil, using its senses to find and filter the most important information, metabolises that information and then disseminates it. It forms its function as a system.

The second aspect of systems journalism - how it can sustain itself - is equally important. This involves understand each individual reporter as a system and also each news organisation as a system, as I started to describe above.

This human being needs energy, food, shelter and companionship in order to function. In our society such things are gained through money. So we need to find a way of financially supporting independent journalists. Or we can find direct ways to meet the human needs of journalists to sustain their work.

Individuals can also come together to form larger systems - teams and organisations. This may take the form of The EcologistThe Bristol Cable, New Internationalist. Indeed, it can take the form of the website of the Off Grid festival.

Smash, build, heal and tame

The coming together allows for emergent qualities not available to single journalists - the creative sharing of ideas, mutual support, and to some extent specialism and critical mass. How do we feed these groups of people, how do we feed them with information?

What we must recognise as systems journalists is that we cannot act like monopoly journalists. We cannot feed off our communities and other journalists - while at the same time polluting our environments with fake news and poor research.

We need diversity - in our identities, in our ideas, in our ways of expressing ourselves. This allows for discovery through creativity. 

We need to stop acting as individual agents and begin to work fully as communities of people, or living organisms, that coevolve and freely exchange matter, energy, information.

We need to decentralise power, to empower those around us. We need to break down the boundary around professional and community journalism. In the (forthcoming) words of Graham Jones in The Shock Doctrine of the Left, we need to smash, build, heal and tame. 

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press)He tweets at @EcoMontague.

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