The Best or Worst?
By Jan Schaffer
Pew Center for Civic Journalism
Quill, May 1997 - Civic journalism. Why does it drive its critics to such condemnatory hysteria? Even as it leaves readers and viewers with such warmly favorable reactions?
That paradox recurs throughout an unprecedented study of four very different civic journalism initiatives supported by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. The research, a year-long independent evaluation commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts, tried to measure the impact of civic journalism both in the individual communities and in the participating newsrooms.
"Citizens exposed to civic journalism want more such reporting," concluded the report, Civic Lessons. "Newsroom responses were frequently ambivalent or even negative."
Civic journalism requires different listening -- for content rather than for quotes to build a story. It requires a conscious sense of where journalistic reflexes are going and an assessment of whether that's the right direction. It requires a fairly high energy level and a lot of legwork. It requires the ability to synthesize a lot of information, rather than parroting the best quotes. And it requires patience with repetition.
"There is a lot less good journalism practiced in the United States than a lot of people like to think," said Lew Friedland, co-author of Civic Lessons. A University of Wisconsin journalism professor, Friedland spearheaded the interviewing in the communities and newsrooms in the four sites studied: Charlotte; San Francisco; Madison, Wisconsin; and Binghamton, New York.
"The fact that reporters (in these civic journalism projects) were out pounding the pavement was actually a reversal of standard practices," he said. "Reporters for the most part sit at their desk and work sources on the phones these days."
Solid legwork, time to report, digging, learning. One would expect journalists to flock to such opportunities.
Instead, they've extended at best a lukewarm reception, except in some passionate corners. And at worst, they've been harshly critical.
What's really going on here? What's all the fuss about?
Friedland's assessment: "Journalists resist thinking about what they do. News is set up to be efficient. It's a pretty well-oiled machine. I don't think that the people who run newsrooms really want that upset.
"They'd rather go down with the ship that they know rather than think of changing course."
Civic journalism has made great strides in the nation's regional newspapers. It's there that reporters and editors are struggling to make their news reports more meaningful to readers who are abandoning them in droves.
"I continue to think that the greatest force of resistance is the hypersensitivity that journalists have," said Gil Thelen, editor of The State in Columbia, South Carolina, where he has worked to create a civic journalism culture
"The creative process in journalism is a very fragile thing. And the fact that we select, edit, compress, synthesize and all of that, in the largest sense, distorts reality. Journalists know that in a piece of their being, so there has grown a culture that is extraordinarily resistant to the outside."
Now, with civic journalism, we're telling them to "let other people into the house, let others into the definition of what is news and that there is going to be a more interactive role with journalists and feedback on how we fare."
From his academic perch, Friedland agrees. "There is a lot of fear that if you open the door a crack, all kinds of things will come tumbling out. [Journalists] see the buying up of newspapers, the tabloidization of newspapers. What good journalist wouldn't be worried about that? It's a pretty rational fear. The response is to circle the wagons. But that's not good enough. That's not going to save the principles they want to defend."
But there is another factor that seems to be restraining newsroom buy-in, one cited by several observers.
"What's really hurting this is the way the elite press is smashing around anything that smacks of experimentation," steamed an irritated Thelen.
Articles in recent months in The New York Times, the New Yorker magazine, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal have been harshly critical of civic journalism -- in particular, they have skewered efforts last fall by 15 North Carolina news organizations to cooperate on polling and issues-based reporting for 10 stories in the presidential and Senate races.
Not only were they critical, they were downright inaccurate, asserted Friedland and others. The writers "didn't actually look at what they were reporting about." said Friedland. "They made a set of assumptions based on what my buddy told me at ASNE."
"There are all kinds of open questions about civic journalism. But they aren't asking those questions. I am really hard-pressed to think of a good piece of criticism because no one has done the reporting."
Journalists at such elite publications have been able to set the profession's standards, frameworks and values for years. "And a lot of the people in my newsroom want to work for them," Thelen noted. "Everybody defers to them. Maybe that's the source of the resistance."
Such elite publications are different from smaller, regional papers like Thelen's. "I think the thing that distinguishes them from the rest of us is that they have an elite audience. The New York Times can live with 25 percent penetration in New York City; I can't."
'In the elite conversation, there can be all of the sanctimoniousness about the extreme separation of church and state (newspaper and community) and an exaggerated kind of independence of action and folderol about voting that prejudices my objectivity. That is the kind of bullshit that doesn't play with regular people.
"Regular people view and experience the world differently from regular readers of The New York Times.
"It's as if there are two different worlds."
The Charlotte Observer began experimenting with civic journalism in the 1992 elections. The philosophy and practices probably are better integrated there than almost anywhere else in the country.
One reason civic journalism is so embedded in Charlotte, say Friedland and Observer reporters, is that the paper sought to marry the best of enterprise reporting with a broader concept of the paper's role in the community.
Top editors laid out the general goals and said to the staff: Now you go and carry it out.
"You could say on one level that is the characteristic of a well-managed newspaper," Friedland said, pausing only a moment then adding: "There is a strong correlation between a well-managed newsroom and good public journalism."
The Observer also assigned some of its most respected reporters to create its civic journalism prototypes. Folks like veteran political reporter Jim Morrill, who helped launched the paper's foray into civic-style election reporting in 1992. This might have helped to allay the kinds of initial perceptions elsewhere that civic journalism was a "management gimmick."
At first it seemed, "it was just another newsroom ... well, fad is not the right word," recalled Morrill.
"I do remember it kind of dawning on me, hey, we're looking at the elections through the eyes of the voter. It kind of flips things around. It's sort of like -- I hope this is not too hokey -- being empowered with the power of the voters."
Morrill has continued to cover politics, including the 1996 presidential elections, through that lens. "I still look at it more as consumer reporting with the consumers being the voters," he said.
"It has changed the way I cover things," he said. "Process stories, turns of the screw, nuance stuff. We don't do that stuff any more. I don't mind it. I'd rather write about bigger stuff."
"It's something I think everybody ought to be doing -- writing for the people who read the paper."
Yet while Morrill and veteran courts reporter Gary Wright were among those leading the charge in Charlotte, they acknowledge there are still questions raised in the newsroom about civic journalism. Wright, who spent two years in some of Charlotte's most crime-ridden neighborhoods as part of the award-winning Taking Back Our Neighborhoods project, said he was doing what every reporter want to do -- getting the time to work on a story.
'With that comes ribbing," Wright said, 'somebody's always giving you a hard time in this business."
Morrill said the Taking Back our Neighborhoods train took off so fast, some reporters had to scurry to get aboard as it left the station.
Wright says questions were raised about the use of a community coordinator to help set up town meetings in the 10 neighborhoods profiled, "but she never once influenced our stories."
Both Morrill and Wright admit to being miffed at some of the criticism aimed at both their election and crime efforts.
"I've never quite understood what the criticism is all about," said Wright. "I didn't do anything that I haven't been doing for years, other than I did more of it."
Morrill said he felt the critics of the 1996 Your Voice, Your Vote elections effort "got the facts wrong. They listened to some political operatives and took their opinions."
There is room for criticism, Morrill said. "The cardinal sin you could accuse Your Voice, Your Vote of is not that it was insidious, but that it was boring . . . it's like giving people broccoli. I don't think 10 people in here read every word of every piece.'
The San Francisco Chronicle's experience mirrored Charlotte's in many ways. Early election efforts in 1994 won the support of initially skeptical political reporters like Susan Yoacum. And the techniques were picked up by such metro reporters as John King, an urban affairs writer who got to spend so much time in three different neighborhoods seeking citizen input in the 1995 mayor's race that the residents noticed.
People in such ethnic enclaves as Visitacion Valley told Friedland that King's stories "put a face on residents and their struggles, showing other San Franciscans that the citizens of Visitacion Valley could not be written off as people who live in the projects and commit crime," according to Civic Lessons.
San Francisco was the noisiest media environment studied by the researchers. Yet in phone interviews, spearheaded by Friedland's co-author Dr. Esther Thorson, of the University of Missouri, a surprising 40 percent of the residents recognized the project and credited it with making them think more positively about their community. Efforts in San Francisco have now moved beyond elections to a major transportation initiative.
In part, the Civic Lessons researchers found that more formal introductions to the concepts of civic journalism contributed to the greater acceptance in Charlotte and San Francisco. Likewise, no introductions were blamed, in part, for shallower acceptance in Madison and Binghamton.
In Madison, they found that the civic journalism efforts -- quarterly examinations of community issues -- were closely directed by top editors, and while reporters regarded them as good assignments, they didn't come to their tasks with the philosophical underpinnings of many of the reporters in Charlotte and San Francisco.
In Binghamton, a brand new managing editor had to combat a high level of cynicism about Gannett's corporate intentions. Old hands in the newsroom told Friedland that real knowledge of the community wasn't rewarded as much as a packaged sense of community. They also questioned the chain's long-term commitment to the project, which sought to engage citizens to solutions to massive defense downsizing in the local economy.
Buy-in, too, was curbed by future job aspirations of younger staffers in places like Binghamton, where reporters hoped to move on in a couple of years. Charlotte and San Francisco had a more stable staff and the direction the newspapers were heading was clear to all.
"Journalists are really afraid . . . that their craft will be destroyed by faddish marketing-based innovations and USA Today-like stunts," Friedland observed.
"There is a tendency to see any change as faddish, as a way of resisting change altogether."
At the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, editor Steve Smith is attempting to create a civic culture "at a slow sizzle instead of a hot boil."
Reporters are asked to check their reflexes at the door and challenged to think about non-traditional framing of news stories: civic framing. Writing about the essence of the story, not the conflict. Moving away from the press table and sitting in the audience with the citizens. Mapping and tracking the community's civic catalysts, those folks who make things happen, but may hold no formal position.
How is Smith trying to get his newsroom to buy in?
"Step one," Smith told a recent gathering of journalists at a Pew Center workshop in Chicago, "is to understand the forces at play in your newsroom. What are the questions and conversations occurring in the newsrooms and how is that translating onto the page?"
Smith brings in consultants like The Harwood Group to help and invites listeners from the paper's Human Resources Department to give him feedback on newsroom conversations.
Once the reflexes at work in the newsroom have been identified, how are they improved?
Through open-ended "public listening" (asking people about hopes, fears and values instead of asking them their opinions); through civic mapping, the search for alternative voices and community catalysts; through story framing that seeks to capture the complexity of civic dialogue and avoid the simplicity. And through lots of community input.
Smith brings in advisory groups to help inform beat reporters, and he has his reporters man the newsroom complaint lines several times a year, fielding and responding to maybe 85 daily calls in an "ombuddy" program.
"This is not just good, old-fashioned journalism," Smith told the Chicago group. "I do think it is fundamentally different. What we're providing is the capacity (for our readers) to learn citizenship."
So how's it going? The conclusions of Civic Lessons seem to suggest there is merit as well good journalism in well-conceived civic journalism initiatives. All four efforts made residents feel more positively about the participating news organizations. Residents of troubled neighborhoods said the news organizations broke from stereotypical coverage of their areas and really seemed to want to hear what they had to say.
All four projects seemed to open options for people in the community and gave citizens a greater sense of possibility about solving local problems. And paradoxically, while newsroom commitment was uneven, that didn't seem to hurt the projects in the community, according to Friedland and Thorson.
Even in Binghamton, Marty Steffens, managing editor of The Press & Sun-Bulletin, said reporters now come knocking on her door to find citizens from the database of those who participated in the Facing our Future economic revitalization initiative.
There are signs that more and more journalists think some of the techniques of civic journalism are worth incorporating into their coverage. A survey released in early April by the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported "solid approval" from a majority of the respondents on four civic journalism approaches (without labeling them as such.)
The strongest approval registered with the first two approaches, which are most like traditional journalism.
A staffer at one Eastern metro paper explained the support for such levels of newspaper involvement with this volunteered comment, according to the survey: "Many papers, while remaining objective, led in some way the struggle for civil rights. Now, we do not lead as much as we try to simply report. . . Unless newspapers make people in their communities feel a part of them, as if they have a stake in them, they will disappear. Papers cannot be observers and reporters of a community. People no longer want to be merely observed. People want to be cared about."
Smith said that all the work he's doing may not yet be apparent in the daily paper, but he's nevertheless moving onward -- with the sports department next in his sight line for experimentation and reconnecting.
Thelen observed that, "You've got to work on so many tracks at the same time . . . over time you begin to see the interrelationships and the connections. You begin to add fuel to the fire of experimentation, of learning.
"For the most part, this crowd is with me now. Does that mean that my investigative editor walks in my shoes? No. But we have good conversations about the non-gotcha way of going about a story. And in our body of work on people burning churches, it's not fingerpointing at people, it's more of a 'how did we get to this point?'
'And our military rape coverage, which recently won a Headliner Award, is different in that it tries to understand, rather than try to accuse.
"If your initial stages are successful, you build it from the bottom up. Now (my staff) is pushing challenges and ideas at me, just as I pushed them five years ago."
- 96 percent approved or somewhat approved of a newspaper reporting on alternative solutions to community problems, pointing out tradeoffs that may be involved.
- 88 percent approved of newspapers developing enterprise stories, supported with editorials, to focus public attention on a community problem and helping the community move toward a solution.
- 71 percent approved of a newspaper polling the public to determine the most pressing community issues, then trying to get candidates to focus on those issues.
- 68 percent approved of a newspaper conducting town meetings to discover key issues in the community and following up with stories focusing on these issues and some possible solutions.
Tips for getting your newsroom connected to your community
- Study the newsroom's internal reflexes. What questions are being asked? How are they being answered? What assumptions are made? "If we don't understand how democracy works in our newsroom, how can we understand it in our community?" says editor Gil Thelen.
- Invite members of the community into the newsroom to sit in on meetings, to tell you how they think you are doing, to inform your beat reporters. In Binghamton, New York, a task force of some former IBM executives sat down with city hall reporters to show them what the executives found in the city budget.
- Bring in outside thinkers to challenge your staff and nudge them to think.
- Hire people open to and curious about change.
- Remove the fear of failure and of experimentation.
- Reward well the kind of journalism you are seeking.
- Avoid labels or jargon if it is off-putting to reporters and editors. Develop a language that will work in your newsroom.
- For informal contacts with the community, have reporters schedule "talk time" in which they make a point of going out and talking -- not interviewing -- people at lunch counters, in stores or other third places in the community.
- For more formal surveys of what's on people's minds, consider a two-step process -- first, a mini-poll of a small sample that will give you information to shape better and deeper questions for a second, larger poll.
- And don't forget to tell your readers, at every step of the way, what you are trying to do. They will be impressively patient and forgiving.
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