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Three Stages of Innovation in Participatory Journalism—Co-initiating, Co-sensing, and Co-creating News in the Chicago School Cuts Case


This article introduces a new way of thinking about innovation in the public sphere through the three collaborative steps of co-initiating, co-sensing, and co-creating news. We investigate a case of mediatized civic responses to public school closings in Chicago, Illinois to understand how participatory news production was initiated from outside the newsrooms and added value to the public debate. A network of civic activists analyzed and visualized data, reported live from school grounds, and developed networks and tools to challenge the local government’s narrative for the school closings. We argue that a limited understanding of the process of co-creation has confined the practice and analysis of collaboration between audiences and professional journalists in news production. Focusing on digital platforms and technologically capable individuals has ignored the majority of the public as potential news producers. Furthermore, we suggest that on the level playing field of contemporary innovation systems, professional journalists can be seen to be participating in the co-creation of journalism initiated by the civil society, challenging the conventional model of newsroom-led participatory journalism. Finally, we discuss the implications of our findings for innovation systems. We suggest that the fine-tuned steps of co-initiating, co-sensing, and co-creating innovations can help in developing the role of the media-based civil society in innovation systems. Applying these steps in practice can help in making the innovations emerging from these systems socially inclusive and sustainable.

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  1. For examples, see Retrieved 10 March 2017.

  2. The term civic technology is, within the field, defined as “tools we create to improve public life. To help each other. To make our governments and our communities safe, joyful, equitable places to live out our lives.” (McCann 2015, p. 47)

  3. The simultaneous and interlinked acts of production and use of media content.

  4. Passionate amateurs acting like professionals.

  5. Due to the sample size and the positions of the interviewees within the community, this paper uses the sex neutral pronoun “they” instead of sex specific “he” and “she.”

  6. A number of approaches have been introduced to understand the changes of roles between news professionals and audiences. These include citizen journalism (Allan and Thorsen 2009), public journalism (Glasser 1999), networked journalism (Jarvis 2006), grassroots journalism (Gillmor 2004), and open-source journalism (Deuze 2001, Lewis and Usher 2013). In this article, we follow Singer et al. (2011, p 1) and use the term “participatory journalism” to generally refer to these ways of doing journalism that emphasize collaboration between producers and consumers of journalistic media content.

  7. The name of Theory U is derived from a U-shaped visualization of this process, starting from the upper left corner with letting go of previous knowledge and observing the needs and potential of others, moving through a phase of stillness in the bottom of the U, and finally proceeding to co-create and prototype the concrete innovations.

  8. Bushe and Marshak (2016) mention Theory U as one of 40 dialogic Organizational Development (OD) methods that are widely used in multi-stakeholder innovation processes both in nonprofit and for-profit environments. Similar OD approaches and methods include, e.g., the World Café (Brown et al. 2005), the art of hosting, community learning (Fulton 2012), and the learning organization (Senge 1990).

  9. Scharmer and Kaufer (2013) also identify the collaborative phases of co-presencing and co-evolving. These concepts are left out of our analysis for the following reasons. Co-presencing means practices of deep reflection and intentional silence to allow new perspectives to emerge. While this may be present in the case we analyze, our data collection did not reach to events where that may have taken place. Co-evolving means scaling and sustaining innovations. The time span of our data does not allow to observe how emerging innovations were either or both sustained and scaled.

  10. The term ecosystem is used descriptively here, based on the use of the term by activists in the movement. (see, e.g., O’Neill, in Goldstein and Dyson, p 27, 2013).

  11. Organizer’s notes on the session can be found at Retrieved 10 March 2017.

  12. A number of partly overlapping terms have been introduced to describe roles in the civic innovation movement. These can include, for example, civic activists, hacker, hacktivist, civic developer, and civic entrepreneur. For the purposes of data coding, the umbrella term civic activist is considered adequate in this article. It describes a person engaged in pursuing civic change.

  13. Retrieved 10 March 2017.

  14. was launched a week before the final school closing list was announced by CPS on March 21, 2013.

  15. An entry in the Apples to Apples blog states: “As always, as this is an unpaid data project often done at night by one person, please check this data over before using it elsewhere”. (Apples to Apples, Sept 8, 2013) Retrieved 10 March 2017.

  16. A list of examples can be found here: Retrieved 10 March 2017.

  17. To mention the most important ones, Urban Geek Drinks was an informal gathering of technology and open government enthusiasts from 2010 to 2012. Open Government Chicago(−land) was a pioneering meet up group of open government advocates. Open Gov Hack Nights are ongoing weekly meetings that have been critical in accelerating the pace of development (Open Gov Hack Night, n.d.). The Hack Night, as the biggest of these groups, gathers an average of 60 people weekly at the Chicago business hub ‘1871’.

  18. An Application Programming Interface, or API, allows computers to interact with each other. In journalism, APIs make it possible for third parties to use the content of news organizations for developing new services.


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Taneli Heikka wishes to thank the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation for financing this research.

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Heikka, T., Carayannis, E.G. Three Stages of Innovation in Participatory Journalism—Co-initiating, Co-sensing, and Co-creating News in the Chicago School Cuts Case. J Knowl Econ 10, 437–464 (2019).

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  • Co-creation
  • Dialogue
  • Dialogic journalism
  • Participatory journalism
  • Innovation
  • Innovation systems
  • Quadruple Helix