In the 1930's, a physicist named Isidor
Rabi, who later went on to win the Nobel Prize, was breaking the
frontiers into the study of sub-atomic particles. By applying the
mechanics of quantum field study, he discovered something that couldn't
be explained - a particle almost invisible that was exponentially
smaller than an electron. He was so surprised by this unexpected
discovery after years of research that he uttered a phrase that
is now legend in science circles: "Who ordered that?"
And to complete the circle, those of you who read The New York Times this week or the condensed version USA Today -- I still have Gannett stock -- learned that even smaller sub-atomic particles have been discovered by scientists at the Brookhaven Institute.
So the particle that Rabi discovered turned out to be called
the muon. It sounds like a Pokemon card, doesn't it?
In this most recent discovery by the Brookhaven scientists who were studying the spin of accelerated muons in a magnetic field, these scientists deduced that there is even yet a smaller particle to which the muon reacts. They discovered it because of the way the muon wobbled. It spun and twirled as if it were dancing with an invisible partner, therefore telling scientists that yet something else existed.
I won't bore you with the details, but by looking for the unexpected, these scientists now believe that they've proven the theory of strings. And by proving the theory of strings, they've proven that matter responds to all four mechanics of physics, including Einstein's theory of relativity.
Okay, I know, too much science on a full stomach. But of course, you ask, how does all this relate to civic journalism?
Scientists study the essence of matter, by listening and observing, in their attempt to better understand the universe. That's really not much different than a civic journalist who listens and observes to better understand his universe, his community. And it's a lesson for all of us. The more we listen, the more we are open to the unexpected and the higher quality of our journalism.
We've heard a lot of examples in our sessions today about the Twin Cities television station that ascertained the mood of its community not by listening or talking to politicians but by listening to the citizens who empowered themselves and encouraged their community to tear down that drug house. And we heard Rob Chaney talk about how listening helped him and his readers learn that maybe one of the largest impediments to fighting forest fires isn't water or wind or heat, but strep throat.
Every day newspapers and television stations report the expected. We all know it. We create those budgets in the morning and we, as editors and managers, love the expected, don't we? Stories turn out the way we said they would. It's written on the budget, they come in at the length we expect, precisely, and they even meet our expectations of being well-written and include two to three real-people citizen voices. That's a goal for a lot of us at Gannett or Knight-Ridder, and it's what we expect.
But it's not what we really want and it's not what our readers
really want. We all know that the best stories, as well as the
best things in life, are unexpected.
Indeed, in my civic journalism career, my most memorable stories
have come from the unexpected. Jan talked a little bit about "Kids
in Chaos." But before we did "Kids in Chaos" in 1993 at the Dayton
Daily News, when we were still experimenting with some civic
journalism techniques, we created the idea of a deliberative interview.
Our immediate goal was to do that old and faithful traditional journalism story - a 20th anniversary. In this case, it was of the tornado that nearly destroyed the small town of Xenia, Ohio. We didn't really want to do the standard looking-back piece, and desperately wanted to avoid the sounds-like-a-freight-train cliche that you see in most tornado stories. This being a Western crowd, you may not hear that as much.
So we gathered together 20 people who lived through the experience and put them all in a room, just a little bit smaller than this one, in a hotel in Xenia. Three reporters were in the room, not to ask questions, not to do interviews, but to listen. And I got the job of facilitating the whole thing.
After the initial ice-breaker, the emotion of surviving the experience washed over the room. The years washed away in vivid stories of the storm and survival. By this time, the participants were almost asking and answering their own questions. They remembered how the storm smelled like gasoline because of all the overturned cars. They remembered it felt like sand, actually glass, so ground by the fury of the storm that it felt like sand matting in their hair.
Then, finally, the real surprise. Everyone in the room had agreed that the real value of the storm was that it had healed the racial divisions in the community, because the storm knocked out the physical divide that made one neighborhood a white neighborhood and one neighborhood a black neighborhood. Black and white churches worked together to rebuild the community.
Who would have thought that healing would come from a tragedy that killed 66 people? Indeed, who ordered that?
And in Binghamton, the Press & Sun-Bulletin hosted a two-year long project on reviving an economy battered by the downsizing of "Big Blue." As the process went along, we asked citizens to create solutions that would revitalize the area. And we got the expected answers: create job training programs, lure more venture capital, improve the transportation grid, reduce government overhead, make governments cooperate, lower energy costs -- New York is ahead of its time -- and the like.
Far and away, the highest number of people thought that beautifying the area would lead to economic growth. It sounds almost frivolous. In creating action teams to work on these specific areas, I certainly could have disregarded those comments as naive and irrelevant. But, instead, we created a team to study beautification. And, at the first meeting of that team, we had about 200 people. The success of the Binghamton project has been well-documented in work by Lou Friedland and Dave Kurpius, as well as a later work by Pat Ford.
But now, six years after the project began, we have had a lot of success. The teams have long-since stopped meeting and Binghamton is home to a new county library. Route 17, which goes along the Southern tier, is now an interstate highway. And the refurbished airport opened last October. In fact, the biggest obstacle to Binghamton growing now is finding enough workers.
Planting flowers as a pathway to getting more jobs? Who ordered
that? But now the most intact civic remnant is that beautification
effort. They're still meeting.
Finding Core Values
I've had the great fortune of carrying my civic journalism ministry around the world. Two years ago I was in Kingston, Jamaica, with the aforementioned Buzz Merrit, and we were working on a major civic problem in that community. We weren't in the vacation area; we were in Kingston, which is the major city in Jamaica, where the murder rate is one of the highest in the world. It's also a country with spiraling HIV rates, and men there suffer from some of the highest rates of prostate cancer in the world.
As I often do in leading civic journalism workshops, I do a core values exercise. By leading the group through a series of questions, we as a group come to determine what's most important to us. It's a wonderful exercise to really get to the heart of an issue. As we talked with that group of Jamaican journalists, a theme emerged. And, I may add, they moved from English to patois very quickly, so it was a little hard to understand.
The Jamaican culture, while certainly a macho one by Latin and Caribbean standards, is really, they said, sending a message that men are devalued. In the room, as the talking increased, men talked a lot about how there were hundreds of women's clinics on the island but only one clinic devoted to men. They said there was very little concern about spending money for preventative care and that men were expendable.
In fact, men in the room said that the culture so denigrated men that it led, in turn, to men caring less about life. So they got involved in risky drug-running, poor sexual behavior, and that led to the current spate of drug-related murders.
Women in the room, of course, disagreed, saying that they were the glue holding Jamaica together. They have an easier time getting jobs, many of them in the tourist industry, and that men have forsaken their roles in the culture.
So the group concluded, the real story in Jamaica might be gender wars, not health, not crime. Who ordered that?
For about four years, I've also worked with journalists in Colombia. Cheryl Gibbs and I have ping-ponged a little bit, in terms of going back and forth to Colombia and working with journalists and educators there. I visited there twice, and twice a group of Colombian journalists have come to the United States where I've led them in three-day workshops in Washington. We also visited the Pew Center.
At first, the group of Colombians said and did what was predictable. They wanted to do projects about peace, projects focused on government and the government strife in that country. But as we began to talk, we talked about projects that went to the heart of the problems in their community.
There is a city inside the Amazon called Florencia. It's in the heart of the Amazon region. The main issue there is health. Poor refugees who are fleeing the strife in different regions of Colombia come to the Amazon for one reason -to hide. And, as these younger refugees came, they were getting ill. The contagion was spreading to the established population.
The civic journalism project that resulted was not what you would have expected, one on health or prevention. It was about recycling. Who ordered that?
It seems that in order to survive, the refugee newcomers lived in the town's landfill, surviving on leftover food and on the money they got for gathering together the recyclable aluminum and paper. But to do that gathering, they had to sift through spoiled food and rotting human waste.
The local university, its journalism students and a TV station
embarked on a project that not only taught the community to separate
their waste, allowing others to find the recyclable materials
without getting ill, but also provided a dialogue for better understanding.
Listen to Unheard Opinions
We, as civic journalists, must strive to find the unexpected, to find the unsung stakeholder in an issue, to listen to unheard opinions, to encourage the reluctant or forgotten citizen.
At the San Francisco Examiner, we supported the work of Sandy Close and the Pacific News Service. Those of you who are not familiar with her work will find it incredibly eye-opening. Sandy has dedicated her life to giving her voice to those often not heard. If you go down to her office at Third and Market, you'll find a bunch of teenagers who hang outside. The landlord's not real fond of them. They're called the Road Dogs. They're a bunch of homeless teens who write for the Pacific News Service. Some of their writing is extraordinary. Other groups she's reached out to include youths in halfway houses or detention centers.
By looking for the unexpected, by listening to the unexpected, we can enliven our stories. It's only human, after all. It's our contradictions that define us, not our commonalities. As writers and editors, we can develop tools to extract the unexpected, to look for that muon wobble that will show us what we can't see.
The next time you look at a story in a story meeting or go out on interviews, ask different questions. Harwood Research tells us to ask a rather interesting question: "What do you make of that?" By asking that question, you'll elicit a more thoughtful, not a knee-jerk response and certainly not a "yes" or "no."
Here's some more questions to ask: "What changed your mind?" Ask this of a candidate: "What is your opponent's or the opposition group's greatest strength?" "What event or what thing changed your mind? "Where do you agree?" "What do you think went right?" "What's missing here?" "What question didn't I ask?"
And one of my favorite questions is this, and I use it in all of my civic journalism projects. It's a question that goes to the heart of personal responsibility. We ask citizens, "What can you do today or this week to solve this community problem?" We hope, and we actually know, that the answers will be surprising. It's what we count on as journalists.
So what about the editors or you educators in the room? We thrive on expectations. After all, how can we complete those reams of job evaluations if we don't have a list of expectations? How can we give a grade to a student? Are they meeting expectations?
But we editors can create surprise and discovery in our newsrooms
and classrooms by changing our systems of rewards and punishments.
We need to celebrate failed experiments that had a good effort.
We need to reward the reporter who turns in a story that's a surprise,
something 180 degrees from what they originally thought.
Innovation: Rewarded or Discouraged
Look in your own heart. Do you really reward innovation in yourself or in others? Do you encourage experimentation? Or do you consider it a waste of time?
You editors, are your evaluations predictable and predictably negative? I'm afraid in most cases the answer is "yes."
How does this whole idea of expectations manifest itself in news coverage? We should look at, in the California energy crisis for example, one of the most uncovered stories is stockholders. We don't care about stockholders, do we, of PG&E? Who are they anyway? Well, frankly, the people who own stock in utility companies are what, in the energy parlance, are called widows and orphans. It's a widow and orphan stock.
People on fixed incomes invest in utilities. They're the big loser, one of the big losers, in the California energy crisis.
What about the failure of dot.com's? Right now the traditional news media is almost celebrating every time a dot.com lays off people or goes out of business. So what kind of story emerges from the failure of dot.com's outside of just a failure story? Well, how about this: Arts groups and non-profit groups who are being pushed out of San Francisco by higher rents caused by the crush of dot.com's rushing to rent space in the Mission District. If they stay, does that not enhance the culture?
The media was more than willing to write about how they were pushed out. Are they going to write stories about how they're staying?
Also, a lot of the dot.com rush was caused by the influx of venture capital into this innovation in experimentation. If you talk to adventure capitalists, there's a lot of money out there waiting to be invested in the next big thing. So what's the next big thing? Wouldn't our readers and viewers like to know?
A lot of people have a problem with civic journalism because it's unpredictable. Civic journalism requires a leap of faith, almost like jumping off of a skyscraper. We enter into projects without knowing where the community conversation is going. And we can't orchestrate true deliberation. It thrives on the harmonic convergence of the unexpected.
If this sounds like the road not taken, it is. And I'm sure all of you journalists resonate with Robert Frost's poem that ends. "Two roads diverge in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by." - and say it with me in the spirit of a Sound of Music sing-along -- that has made all the difference.
Choosing surprise - isn't that really saying that we choose truth? The truth is always unexpected, a surprise that resonates with us, a harmonic connection.
This week scientists came closer to proving the "M" theory. That's what they call the theory of strings now. They call it the "M" theory, which stands for -- believe it or not -- the "mother of all theories," or the "mystery of the universe" theory. Scientists, like journalists, are searching for the truth. It is our higher calling.
And true to the sense of surprise, I leave you with this line, from one of Robert Frost's lesser known poems: "Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak."