Charlotte, N.C., citizens recently opened their newpapers to read a list
of things critically needed in five of the city's most crime-ridden
neighborhoods. They were so moved that more than 500 immediately
volunteered to help. Most had a solution or two to the problems right in
their own hands.
In Tallahassee, more than 300 citizens met in an
electronic town hall, taking a new pathway to civic engagement. Without
leaving their homes, they simply turned on their computers and dialed into
the Tallahassee FreeNet, there to spend two hours talking about their
"It was a real gas," said Tallahassee
Democrat associate editor Bill Edmonds, who suggested taking the
newspaper's Public Agenda project on-line. While it may have been
frustrating, at times, to have more than 300 people trying to "talk" at
once, "It was oddly energizing ," he said.
All these citizens have
come face-to-face with journalism that is a little different in their local
newspapers and on their television and radio stations.
It may not be
entirely new, but it does have some new names. Variously called civic,
public or community journalism, it has energized not only citizens, but
also editors and news directors who have been trying it in dozens of
communities across the country in the past year or two.
most civic journalism initiatives make a deliberate attempt to reach out to
citizens, to listen to them, and to have citizens listen and talk to each
other. Sometimes this happens in large town meetings, at other times in
more intimate living-room conversations; sometimes at public debates, at
other times in focus groups.
And if attendance and response levels
are any indicators, most citizens who have had the experience seem to like
being invited to take a more active role in their communities, to help
define just what the problems are, set an agenda, establish priorities and
figure out solutions.
As the three Wisconsin women discovered, it can
be a lot more challenging and even more fun than the afternoon soaps.
They're now regulars on the Wisconsin town meeting circuit.
enough civic journalism efforts have been printed and broadcast to
demonstrate that they are good journalism -- as well as good catalysts to
It would be hard to top the kind of neighborhood
reporting the Charlotte Observer has undertaken in its
eight-month-old "Taking Back our Neighborhoods/Carolina Crime Solutions"
project. Their tough, old fashioned, shoe-leather information gathering
just led the North Carolina Press Association to award the series a first
place prize for public service.
This year will see ever more civic
journalism projects launched. Indeed, the Pew Center will help fund 12 of
them. Among them are not only new projects, but efforts by experienced
practitioners to let their initiatives evolve in new directions.
Charlotte Observer, for instance, wants to figure out where next to
take its crime series. "We have been astonished at the civic energy the
series has unleashed," said editor Jennie Buckner.
State Journal, a partner in one of the nation's longest-running civic
journalism efforts, is planning to tackle even more controversial issues
than it has up until now, including the venerable, but sprawling 26-campus
University of Wisconsin and the racial theories expounded in the
controversial new book "The Bell Curve."
television and radio partners involved in U.S. Senate and gubernatorial
election projects last year, led by National Public Radio, are eager to
apply the lessons they have learned to the 1996 presidential primary and
general election campaigns.
As the types of civic journalism
initiatives are evolving, so, too, is the understanding within the
profession. Early criticism is turning to curiosity as editors ask to see
more and as practitioners profess total puzzlement at how their efforts
could possibly be tarred with such labels as boosterism or advocacy.
"Facilitating a meeting is not the same as participating in the
outcome," says Wisconsin State Journal associate editor Tom Still,
who with partner Dave Iverson, executive producer of Wisconsin Public
Television, have spearheaded the successful "We the People/Wisconsin."
That three-year-old partnership, which has grown to include public radio
and WISC-TV, the CBS affiliate, has continually evolved as it seeks to
introduce citizens variously to election campaigns, federal issues, state
problems and to engage young people in the process of citizen deliberation
and decision making.
Likewise, NPR editorial director John Dinges, who
oversaw the 1993 election coverage, said, "The Citizens Agenda, not
Objectivity vs. Advocacy, were at the heart of the NPR Election Project."
The project involved intensive reporting by newspaper, radio and
television partnerships in six cities on issues citizens wanted political
candidates to address. Overall, more than 50 radio stations
"Questions of objectivity or advocacy have not been a
factor in any of our projects. Our stations and newspaper partners also did
not 'organize' in the community," Dinges said.
Civic journalism is nourished by a concern among top
editors that something is amiss in their relationship with their readers
and viewers. But they aren't so out of touch with them that they don't
know they aren't in touch.
"The 11 o'clock news doesn't reflect
anyone's life," says veteran New York City television news producer Paul
Richard Brady, a Cincinnati-based executive with Suburban
Communication Corp., owners of suburban newspapers in several big cities,
has a sign over his desk, "Change isn't an option anymore. The option now
is to become an agent of change, not a victim of change."
Both men are
face-to-face with the paradox of journalism in the Nineties: 1994 was a
great year from a business point of view, with a total recovery from the
recession, but each is facing declining audiences and the gnawing feeling
that the ground is shifting under his feet and no one quite knows what to
do about it.
For many big media companies under pressure from Wall
Street, the way to deal with the uncertainties of the future is to seek
alliances with hardware producers or owners of what are now called
communications networks -- previously known as telephone companies. But
for some journalists worried about the future, there is a new willingness
to consider other changes.
Paul Dolan of ABC News is one. He is looking
for ways to protect the news franchise of the highly profitable stations
that Capital Cities/ABC owns in such rich markets as New York, Los Angeles,
Philadelphia and Chicago. He says he is convinced that one way to deal
with the future is to return to core journalistic values.
That theme is
echoed again and again among editors who are turning to civic journalism
techniques. Consider the "We the People/Wisconsin" project. Now entering
its fourth year, that media coalition has sponsored regular explorations of
key state issues. The partners, with help from market research firm, Wood
Communications, host town meetings and focus groups around the state to
begin conversations on issues citizens have told the partners they
consider vital. Reports appear on page one and on the six o'clock news.
Call-in radio programs give everyone who wants to participate an
opportunity to do so in the weeks leading up to the live television
specials that are the climax of the quarterly process. But at the heart of
the process is hard, shoe-leather reporting that transcends the easy,
traditional formulas so characteristic of much of journalism.
practices were used in dozens of other civic journalism projects underway
in 1994. This year, new initiatives are being headed by the San Jose
Mercury, the Detroit Free Press, the Grand Forks (N.D.)
Herald, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Bergen
Record, the Dayton Daily News, the Rochester Democrat and
Chronicle, the Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury, and the
Their proposals range from studying solutions to
children beset by violence in Detroit, to holding a community conversation
in Grand Forks; from studying the quality of life in Bergen and Passaic
Counties, to exploring citizen willingness to end traditional school
boundaries in Rochester.
Civic, or public, journalism experiments have
been underway since 1990 when the Wichita Eagle's editor Davis
"Buzz" Merritt, still smarting over the cynicism of the 1988 presidential
campaign, decided his newspaper would no longer be manipulated by the
political consultants. Instead, citizens would be the focus for his
paper's political coverage.
The idea was embraced and advanced in 1992
by Rich Oppel, then executive editor of the Charlotte Observer.
Oppel formed a partnership with WSOC-TV, the Cox-owned ABC affiliate, to
extend the reach of what came to be called "Your Vote in '92."
year Ed Miller of The Poynter Institute for Media Studies teamed with NPR
to extend the concepts of civic journalism Merritt and Oppel had pioneered.
NPR, supported by a grant from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and the
Carnegie Foundation, recruited top flight public radio stations in
Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Wichita and in New Hampshire for a
wide-ranging election year experiment designed to break with past
When the news directors of the stations and their
newspaper partners gathered in San Francisco in December 1994 to assess
their experiments, they were still a little taken aback at the project's
impact. Citizens had connected with the political process; they flooded
voice mail lines and call-in shows. Perhaps even more surprising, many
reporters, initially resistant to any change, bought into the methods of
civic journalism. One of the participants, Walter Robinson, the Boston
Globe's managing editor for metro news, wryly reflected on the
attitude in his newsroom: "Reporters tend to reflect the interests of the
institutions they cover rather than of their readers."
about the impact of the project on readers. Sheri Dill, editor of the
Wichita Eagle during the 1994 campaign, cited a post-election
survey in which 75 percent of readers said the paper's coverage was quite
effective in interesting them to vote. That was up from under 35 percent
in 1990. More than88 percent of its readers said they were "satisfied"
with the coverage, up 9 percentage points from 1990. And 86 percent of
readers -- up from 72 percent in 1990 -- rated the Eagle's election
coverage as "fair."
Most striking, however, was the startling drop
(from 55 percent to 38 percent) of readers who called television the "most
helpful" source of information for voters while the Eagle's ranking
as the "most helpful" source went from 30 percent to 39 percent. Moreover,
Dill said, voter turnout in the Eagle's circulation area was up 3
percent in the face of a 2 percent drop statewide.
While the Election
Project editors expressed varying degrees of satisfaction about their
efforts at their San Francisco gathering, they were all eager to talk about
how they could use civic journalism techniques in day-to-day news coverage
and to begin planning for the presidential campaign. No one wanted to
return to the old ways of covering politics.
Next year's front-loaded
primary season -- with 27 primaries and caucuses scheduled to take place in
just 39 days -- has already prompted some editors and news directors to
begin designing election year projects with a focus on voters, not just the
candidates, their consultants and their pollsters. They are fearful the
presidential primary will occur at such an accelerated rate that the
extended conversation candidates are supposed to hold with voters will be
reduced to 10-second sound bites and 30-second negative TV ads, the HIV
virus of American politics.
in some cases building on the foundation of the 1994 NPR-Poynter-Pew
election project alliances, are coming together in New Hampshire and other
key states. The purpose is to create a series of citizen-centered campaign
events, debates, town hall meetings, candidate-citizen conversations that
will be too important for the candidates to ignore.
One effect of the
presidential year events may be to demonstrate to the traveling Washington
press corps that civic journalism has begun to take root all over the
country, that some editors and news directors have not totally surrendered
to the forces of market-driven journalism, that it may still be possible to
begin, as David Broder has urged, to rebuild democracy from the ground up.
They are willing to confront the awful truth that the fabric of
American civil society has become badly tattered in recent years and that
journalists have been as culpable as anyone in that process.
what's ahead for civic journalism? Some projects begun last year will
continue. In Charlotte, as a result of the civic journalism partnership,
more than 500 citizens and groups have volunteered to help out, an eyesore
in one neighborhood has been demolished, another neighborhood is getting a
new recreation center and local law firms have rallied to file pro bono
lawsuits to close crack houses,
"We used to heighten conflict. We'd
say to people, you go fight, we'll hold your coats and write about it
afterwards," said Rick Thames, one of the Observer's most
experienced editors. "But we've learned that doesn't serve our readers very
well. They are tired of the conflict. They want to see solutions."
Florida, a community conversation begun by the Tallahassee Democrat
and CBS affiliate, WCTV, under the rubric, "The Public Agenda", is also
continuing. It's a conversation designed to find, focus and begin
deliberations on such key community issues as roads and growth. It's taking
place in living rooms, churches, community centers, and, yes, on the local
computer bulletin board, where citizens want to continue their
conversations, but just one issue at a time. The Public Agenda began to be
shaped last summer when the Harwood Group, a Bethesda, Md., research firm
convened a series of living room conversations to get a handle on what was
on the minds of Tallahassee's citizens. The project went public last
November when citizens were invited to sit in their own legislators' seats
at a meeting in the General Assembly chamber at the Florida state house.
The role journalists are playing in Tallahassee would have been
familiar to newspaper editors of a hundred years ago. The Democrat
and its TV partner have created an extension of the town hall, something
that newspapers once commonly did. The Tallahassee media partnership
provided what public opinion guru Daniel Yankelovich calls the "public
space" where citizens can gather and undertake the deliberation that must
occur before they can reach a consensus.
Some civic journalism critics
have confused this convening function with boosterism. Journalists, they
say, have no business taking a role in any civic enterprise, except to
report on it. Charlotte Observer executive editor Jennie Buckner
doesn't see it that way. "Our experience has been the opposite of
boosterism," says Buckner. "We have told the community hard truths about
itself. We have asked the people of Charlotte and the neighborhoods
[spotlighted by the Observer and its broadcast partners] to look at some
of the most damaging pathologies in cities today. They have looked at them,
owned up to them and decided to do something about them. We have not
skirted around issues, we have taken them on. We have entered into a
dialogue with the community about how we came to have these difficulties,
but we have also talked with the community about solutions and committed to
Like the neighborhood initiative in Charlotte, the
Tallahassee project has little to do with politics and everything to do
with governance, obviously a vital function in a democracy but one often
regarded as boring to readers. Governance is, after all, the decisions
political leaders make after the election that affect the lives of
As one editor said at the San Francisco meeting, "Governing
may be boring to us, but it's what our readers care about. Maybe we should
dare to be boring. Our readers might surprise us."