It's hard for many of us to believe that we've actually been engaged in civic journalism experiments now for more than 10 years.
Pew Center has funded 120 projects in more than 225 newsrooms if you count all the media partnerships. But we've actually seen evidence of more than 600 projects occurring around the country, as Professor Lew Friedland will detail in a minute. We've trained 4,000 journalists and educators.
There are some things we now know, from research in the academy:
In a poll we did last year, 66 percent of top editors liked the idea and philosophy of civic journalism. But only:
- We know civic journalism triggers civic behavior.
- We know it builds credibility.
- We know credibility can help news organizations make money.
- We know citizens like it.
- We know that once journalists do it, they get it.
- And we know that everyone hates the name.
One of the trends we have seen over the last 10 years, though, is a big difference in what surrounds the label. In 1994--95 you'd hear civic journalism treated synonymously with advocacy journalism, or, because of the early use of focus groups, market-driven journalism.
- 19 percent embraced the label.
- 47 percent liked the philosophy, disliked the label.
- 10 percent recoiled from the label.
- Just 9 percent hated everything.
Now what do we hear? Why can't you just call it "good journalism." We'll take that, but most civic journalists think it is more than that. It more actively seeks input from ordinary people and builds in entry points for that input.
Some other trends over the decade: Civic journalism started in 1990-92 by experimenting with issues-based election coverage-but the issues were citizens' or voters' issues. Not the candidates'.
By 1994, civic journalism moved into the enterprise arena, with big projects. These include one of the most successful templates of all time-the Charlotte Observer's "Taking Back our Neighborhoods"-a look at violent crime in 10 urban areas. It used all the civic journalism bells and whistles. It started with a poll, but quickly moved to neighborhood listening sessions, advisory groups, town hall meetings. The idea was to figure out how people living in those neighborhoods defined the problems.
Those neighborhoods have changed dramatically, and today, eight years later, they still credit the project with building new neighborhood capacity.
- There were TV and radio partners.
- There were success stories that balanced the failures.
- And there were so-called "needs lists" of very specific things people in these neighborhoods said they needed. And a phone number to call. And 1,200 Charlotteans did call and respond, because they could see how they could help.
By the mid-'90s, we saw efforts to do civic journalism daily-with dedicated civic journalism pages at the Virginian Pilot and the use of civic mapping.
I see civic mapping as civic journalism's biggest response to the rapid diversification of communities. Editors woke up one day and said, "Hey, we can't invite people to a town hall. For one thing, half of them don't even speak English. And we don't know who they are. We simply don't know our communities anymore."
This laid the basis for "master narrative" coverage of communities-stories that seep and ooze, but don't "break."
A more activist journalism evolved later in the decade, as newspapers actively sought ways to engage people in solutions to problems-tutoring in Baltimore, study circles to deal with alcohol abuse in Maine.
We have a timeline in the back of our new book, Civic Journalism: A Living Legacy, that really demonstrates how, creatively, civic journalists kept developing new venues for citizens. When you look at it, it's really stunning.
Certainly the rise of the Internet was a great boon to the civic journalism movement. Civic journalists were always in the vanguard of interactivity. They moved from interactions with people in town halls and focus groups to the latest-which are clickable maps and Sim City-kinds of exercises.
At the front of the book, I excerpted some thoughts from Jay Rosen, speculating on what future historians might say about civic journalism. Overarching thoughts.
I want to move to our panel; but I want to close with two thoughts.
One is that I think the reporting in the mainstream press about civic journalism is a classic example of much of what is wrong, in general, with reporting today.
Consider this example from the May 20 issue of Editor & Publisher. They were citing the 10 newspapers in the country that "do it right." At the top of their list was the Wisconsin State Journal. But that magazine had to go out of its way to be sure that civic journalism didn't get any credit for this accolade.
So here's how they led the article:
"Civic journalism earned its decidedly mixed reputation because it too often seems to involve timorous reporting followed by community meetings led by editors acting so earnestly you fear that any minute they will take out a guitar and lead everybody in a chorus of 'Kumbaya'."
This, folks, is a true lede.
Next sentence: "That's not how the Wisconsin State Journal practices civic journalism." So you set up a straw dog, and gleefully knock it down.
As I work on a forthcoming book, I want to go back to the writers who crafted these descriptions to see how they arrived at them. In truth, I think it's lazy reporting. They think they are buying into conventional wisdom, without any original reporting to test out that wisdom.
The decade is replete with such examples.
Finally, I want to suggest to you that what this decade has been about is less about craftsmanship and more about connections.
Now, I love a beautifully written story as much as anyone. We, in journalism, have for so many years believed that if we would just write our stories better, or tell them better, our audiences would grow.
What civic journalism has shown us is that: It's more about the attachments we build with those audiences, the connections, the entry points, the interactions, the participation. Those attachments build relationships and the relationships with the news organizations are what make people committed readers and viewers.
So let's go to our panel.