In San Antonio, Telemundo's KVDA-TV installed Web cams in Hispanic homes to
get man-in-the-home rather than man-on-the street interviews.
In Missoula, MT, portable computer kiosks allow The Missoulian to take
traveling surveys on community issues - and even get input on breaking news.
And in West Virginia and Minnesota, new videoconferencing technology gives
local TV and newspaper partners access to simultaneous conversations around
the state on key issues.
Welcome to the future of news. It's a road well-paved by civic journalists,
who year after year have dreamed up new ways to build some direct connections
with readers and viewers.
The point is not just the connections themselves, but building the capacity
for citizens to engage in important public policy choices or access knowledge
in new ways.
In the process, journalists get to learn more about what matters to people.
And the public gets to feel like more than pieces of furniture moved around
in our stories so they'll read right.
The intent makes it civic. The technology makes it interactive. The people
make it fun. And the journalists make it journalism.
What's the future of civic journalism? Let's call it Interactive News. Nine
out of 10 editors in the recent APME/Pew survey say the future of the news business
depends on more interactivity with readers. Seven out of 10 say they are not
happy with their current level of interactivity.
And by interactivity I don't mean simply journalism that you can fetch or
call up off the Internet. Rather, I mean interactions that put the newsroom
in direct contact with readers.
Those connecting points are critical to helping cement the relationships a
news organization needs to have with its community.
"In this day and age, people can get news information from anywhere they want,"
said Portland (ME) editor Jeannine Guttman at this year's Batten Symposium at
Kent State University. "There's only one reason they buy your paper, because
they have a relationship with your paper."
Now, amid much hand-wringing about cutbacks and economic pressures, civic
journalism offers a ray of hope and a sense of some possibilities for a beleaguered
industry. It encourages us to focus on what we can do - not what we can't.
We can set some priorities. We can build those relationships. And new technology
can help us do that even better.
One of those relationships may involve the public not just receiving from
us, but giving as well. With fewer feet on the street, civic newsrooms are well
positioned to encourage other eyes and ears to share important developments
Civic journalism has evolved in quite novel ways in little over a decade.
It took off with reader polls and town-hall meetings in the early '90s. Large
town-hall meetings then evolved into more productive action teams or mock juries.
Partnerships with TV and radio stations began to emerge, early precursors of
Civic mapping demonstrated how to alter some journalistic routines that were
hampering newsrooms from tapping deeper layers of the community.
And newspapers opened up many entry points for readers. For instance, according
to the APME/ Pew poll:
- Eight out of 10 newspapers responding give readers one or more options for
obtaining the e-mail addresses of reporters.
- Nearly eight out of 10 have established e-mail, voice mail or Web site tip
- More than seven out of 10 newspapers offer readers one or more avenues other
than letters to the editor for publishing their own ideas.
- More than four out of 10 publish the telephone numbers of the reporters
with every story, and more than one-quarter post some or all of their reporters'
telephone numbers on a Web site.
- Fifty-six percent had convened conversations about a key community issue
outside of the newsroom.
Many of those responding also say they are offering tip lines, creating Reader
Advisory Boards, opening up their news meetings to outside visitors or establishing
community publishing venues.
Overall, there is emerging a much higher comfort level for relinquishing traditional
control and building journalism that is less of a one-way pipeline for information
and more of a two-way conversation.
When the Internet took off in the mid-90s, civic journalists saw possibilities
for more than just archiving stories, updating incremental news and opening
up unlimited space.
Early work began with feedback zones, tip lines, online chats - and venues
for the stories readers wanted to tell us, not just what we journalists wanted
to tell them.
Things felt messy, at first.
"Journalists are instinctively wary of user postings," remarked Reid Ashe,
former publisher of the Tampa Tribune and now President of Media General,
in a keynote address in April at Kent State. "We haven't screened them. They're
often slanderous or wrong or politically incorrect.
"They are, however, the real world, and they're going to be out there whether
we like them or not. If we attach them to our own sites, we can give them a
sense of direction if not a constructive purpose. This is public participation
in raw form. It's not always pretty. But it's close to the heart of our mission
as civic journalists."
Civic journalists, however, are quickly figuring out how to give the public's
appetite for participation some sense of direction.
In a template quickly copied by political candidates, New Hampshire Public
Radio built an online Tax Calculator to help people figure out the impact on
their individual wallets of various tax reform bills.
In Spokane, Spokesman-Review Interactive Editor Ken Sands has built
e-mail databases with 3,000 names to amplify reporter queries and to generate
some fresh responses. And the paper now has plans to leverage that database
into three Web-based beats.
"I think we're still in the Stone Age with all of this technology," Sands
said at the April Batten Symposium. "This e-mail tool that I have, I feel sometimes
like it's a hammer and chisel and that over the next year or two or three we'll
refine it into something really cool. And by then it will be obsolete because
something really cool will have replaced it."
In Everett, WA, The Herald not only offered its cool clickable Web
map. It bridged the digital divide with an in-paper survey so that another 300
people could register their choices on paper. In addition, 300 others were prompted
to be heard another way - they wanted no riverfront development and opted to
give their feedback via a signed petition.
While the paper would do some things differently next time, the journalists
value the connections they made. And they don't underestimate the task of involving
"Getting people engaged is a challenge, no matter how many bells and whistles
you've got," says Mark Briggs, The Herald's new media editor.
To be launched soon in Myrtle Beach is an interactive game that The Sun
News hopes will involve residents in the impact of growth on The Grand Strand.
And the ideas keep growing - mapping congressional districts, chronicling
citizen success stories with open records, calculating the impact of a river
plan on tax bills and water supplies.
Proposals for the coming year promise to advance things further. In Portland,
OR, KGW-TV wants to help people map how different growth plans will impact their
Black Entertainment Television has set its sights on letting people click
on the best communities for African-American families, and an online choices
simulation that will invite people to click on a scenario, make a choice and
see the consequences, based on proposed legislation or news developments.
Many of these interactions promise to appeal to Gen Y news consumers - those
born between 1977 and 1995, now ages 6 to 24.
"Gen Y will, in this decade, become the largest generation in American history,"
APME President Chris Peck told a group of journalists at a Pew Center workshop
earlier this year. Generation Y is, by majority, a non-white generation - over
50 percent are black, Hispanic, Asian or some combination.
They are growing up wired - multi-tasking with a mouse, plugged into a CD
player, glued to a Game Boy or Nintendo controller.
They already absorb information in different ways. It is unlikely that they
will want traditional definitions of "news"- or 30-inch linear stories. And
they will, no doubt, want news that is, for them, very hands-on.
To that end, civic journalism will continue to provide a safe haven to experiment
with interactive ways of conveying information, with narrative storytelling
forms and even with some more definitions of "news."
"We have to find ways to raise the value of news," said Media General's Ashe.
"The value is not in the raw information. It's in its ability to support linkages
and relationships and to facilitate participation."
Much of the current newsroom focus in journalism has been on the 'C' word
- convergence. The experience of civic journalists suggests the focus for the
future should be on a different 'C' word - citizens. The kinds of interactions
with readers will then dictate the appropriate news platform."
Contact the Pew Center at 202-331-3200. E-mail Jan Schaffer at firstname.lastname@example.org.