My charge is to
talk to you today about the idea of civic journalism and how it may help in
bridging the gap between journalism and the communities they serve. I
assume Carol Marin wasn't available. Seriously the recent controversy over
the appearance of Jerry Springer on Channel Five's news program has
underlined the seriousness with which the people of this city take their
news. We meet at a good time.
Let me start by saying that I was lucky
to begin my career in journalism at a time when there were great stories to
cover -- the civil rights revolution in the South, the space program, war
in Vietnam, Watergate, eight presidential elections. I can't remember a
time when I was not in love with journalism and I passed that love on to my
children, one of whom is now rising through the ranks at CNN, so what I am
about to say is said out of sadness and concern.
I believe that
America's spirit is sagging and journalists are losing their authority in
the public life of this nation. I believe further that these two trends are
Civic journalism is my answer to the question of what ought
to done about that state of affairs. If there are other answers, I'm not
aware of them. Of course, journalists can stand still and do nothing, but I
believe if they do nothing they will suffer a long slow death and our
society will be much poorer without a vigorous, inquiring, connecting
Let me give you some background on how my
thinking has evolved. We can start with the words of political philosopher
Benjamin Barber. He writes, "Because we regard ourselves as born free, we
take liberty for granted. We assume that our freedom can be enjoyed without
responsibility and that, like some great perpetual motion machine, our
democracy can run forever without the force of civil activity by engaged
A harsh charge from Mr. Barber: that we enjoy freedom
without responsibility, but where is the evidence? Harvard political
scientist Robert Putnam provided one answer recently in an important essay
with the provocative title, "Bowling Alone." In it he documented the
decline in group membership in bowling leagues and also pointed to trends
in our civic life even more telling -- voter turnout in national elections
is down 25% in 15 years; 40% fewer parents are engaged in PTA activity than
were engaged in 1964; adult participation in Boy Scouts is down by 25%;
interest in politics among college freshmen is at its lowest level since
What is the evidence for my assertion that journalists are
losing their place? Shall we start with circulation? In a fast growing
country, newspaper circulation has been flat for more than 20 years.
Healthy Sunday sales mask a long term decline in daily readers. The
audience for network television news is hemorrhaging. Consider this:
Researchers at the Pew Center for the People and the Press find only about
43% of the public say they watch the news regularly. As recently as 1993
more than 60% said they did and in the very recent past 90% of the TV sets
turned on at dinner time were tuned to news programs.
What went wrong?
A lot. But for me it was best summed up by a woman I met at a focus group a
year ago here in Chicago. She said, "They (meaning journalists) they talk
about things I'm not interested in and they use words I don't understand."
So there I think is the evidence I can present in this short time for
my assertion that there is a long term decline. Many of you already know
that. I am here to say that many of the conventions of journalism,
conventions I honored throughout my career, like detachment are no longer
effective--if they ever were. Today the public is more educated, more
demanding of TV news and newspapers than ever before and they are
distrustful of journalists, because they believe journalists are unfair,
inaccurate and intrusive, in other words they see us -- correctly -- as
disdainful of them.
How can we journalists change? How can we regain
our authority and status as the place where the community debates its
future and its problems? And how do we do this without painting ourselves
as hussies and pandering to our readers? Let me suggest that civic
journalism may offer some solutions to the problems I have described.
First let me offer a definition: At its heart, civic journalism is
simply this: an effort to give people the news and information they need in
order for them to behave as citizens. If citizenship is defined as the
active and informed participation of people in the life of the community --
however broadly or narrowly defined community may be -- then civic
journalism is all about arming people with the knowledge they need to
become active citizens, informed and involved participants in public life.
Civic journalism is an idea, a different way of thinking about the
news. It's a work in progress, it's not an orthodoxy, there is no template,
no one size fits all. It is being invented by editors all over the country
who have become alarmed by the growing disconnect they sense between their
newspapers and their community.
Perhaps it might also be useful to
give you my definition of journalism. I believe that journalism is about
giving people a window on their world. The framing may be through a
newspaper, a magazine, a radio or a television set, for many people it's
three of those four frames, but the glass must be clear and clean, not
flawed or distorted.
The trouble is that the window of journalism has
been located, for the last couple of decades, in such a way that it looks
down on the world and the view it takes is of the sensational, the tawdry,
the tabloid and the trivial. Journalism has increasingly failed to show
people the world outside their field of vision. Foreign news is
disappearing. And the window has been located in fortress journalism, that
is journalism as an aloof and isolated castle, high on a lonely hilltop,
far removed from the community, surrounded by a moat called detachment. No
wonder journalism is seen as irrelevant at best, hostile at worst; no
wonder 70% of Americans think we get in the way of communities solving
As the world has become smaller, as the 500 channels of
news and information we were hearing about only a few years ago lurches
toward reality, the officers of fortress journalism's garrison have reacted
by looking ever more inward; they are ever more reluctant to venture
outside the walls and they're horrified at the thought that a Trojan horse
filled with new ideas may be insidethe moat.
I exaggerate...a little.
There are many newspapers that have reinvented themselves, that have
reached out to their readers and found that listening to them, breaking the
isolation, the cold indifference to the public life of their city, can be
not only good journalism but good business. In Portland, Maine, for
example, the meetings of the editorial board of the Press-Herald are
open to the public. The board has made a successful effort to demystify the
process by which they arrive at their editorial positions.
to the public and listening well is one of the tenets of civic journalism.
I mean listening not just for the killer quote or the 8 second sound bite
but listening for the real meaning, for the music as well as the words, in
the conversation a healthy democratic community is always holding with
itself. I read recently that the average physician interrupts a patient who
is describing his symptoms after just 15 seconds and, on average, it takes
people about a minute to describe how they feel. No wonder there are so
many incorrect diagnoses. We aren't the only ones who listen too fast.
Jennie Buckner, editor of the Charlotte Observer, is amused
that critics seem to equate listening to the public with pandering to the
public, she says that ignorance of the public's agenda is not bliss, it's
A few years ago, an assignment took me into
factories. They weren't what I expected. In today's wired work environment,
people are not meek recipients of top-down orders. The workplace is
collegial; many voices are heard. The boss asks for and gets feedback. I
learned that factory workers don't run machines anymore. Workers run
computers and computers run the machines.
Computers -- and research
tells us that 60% of Americans use computers in the workplace -- computers
are two-way devices. So why are we journalists behaving as if we are still
living in a top-down world and wondering why it is that people no longer
pay much attention to what we have to say?
One of the characteristics
of today's rootless society and anonymous suburbs is that there are few
places where the public can come together to talk about the issues in a
community; to have a civil dialogue.
But the newspaper is the place
where a community can have a conversation with itself, where ideas may be
debated and dissenting voices heard, where a civic consensus may emerge.
But that's best done when the walls of fortress journalism are torn down
and the public is invited in.
How to do that? It seems to me that one
way is for news organizations to reach out and invite people in. The
Hartford Courant does just that, inviting people to spend time in
the newsroom -- up to three months at a time. They honor those who write
the best letters to the editor at an annual banquet. They convene groups of
readers whenever there is a major breaking local issue and the report the
deliberations of these citizen groups when they illuminate the issue. In
Dallas, WFAA-TV makes sure that a week does not go by without news
reporters and producers attending at least one community group meeting.
They are there to listen, not to cover the event, though sometimes they
learn of future news stories by attending these events. A newspaper in
California invites readers to write op-ed page pieces substituting them for
the predictable views of the Washington insiders.
Does every reader
opinion merit respect? Of course not. But there are many voices in a
community which, when invited to do so, are surprising with their
eloquence, their wit, their common sense. Some of you might try your hand
at writing for, if not the big dailies, the community and ethnic newspapers
that enrich this city. The are today's popular civic forum. A role
television with its fixation on popular entertainment values even in its
news programs, has chosen not to play.
Television teems with
Washington opinion mongers. The TV food fight is now as much a part of the
weekend as hot dogs and barbecues. But the Washington talking heads are
remote, in touch with the issues that resonate inside the Beltway and you
know how few of those issues resonate outside the Beltway.
that what readers hunger for is information, analysis and opinion on the
issues close to home -- that is not available from television.
are not attracted to the TV screaming heads who shout slogans like
pro-choice or pro-life, when we know the values many people bring to the
discussion are about the mushy middle. That's where most people live.
But wait a minute. Doesn't that take the thunder out of the
traditionally lusty Chicago school of journalism? I don't think so, not if
you get the framing right. Trouble is too often journalists get it wrong.
As John Leo pointed out in a recent issue of US News, the newsroom
sees many stories in stereotypical terms, may I call them politically
correct terms, a phrase he does not use.
Take the other TV trend
story: lesbians and their heroine, Ellen. Leo says the newsroom convention
is that homosexuals are members of an oppressed and victimized class. They
are equated with blacks and are seen to be in a noble struggle for their
civil rights. Words like bias, exclusion, tolerance and rights are used in
this narrative. In reality, he says, the public's attitude is more one of
tolerance, live and let live. But, polls show, a large majority of
Americans have conflicted feelings, particularly when it comes to gay
marriage and classroom teaching that comes close to endorsement of
homosexuality. In the newsroom this is treated as homophobia, Leo says. So
the real conversation, the story of people's values and their conflicted
feelings about homosexuality is off the table because of this flawed
Now I am not a public relations man. I will leave it to
others far more expert than I to talk about the techniques that non-profits
are successfully using to get their message out. What about some specific
techniques to engage, not repel, the reader and viewer? I have made a
couple of suggestions already about the ethnic and community press.
addition, I think local talk radio gets a bum rap because of the many
extremists who use it to advance an ideology. My experience is that there
are many talk radio programs that have become a kind of local town square
where ideas are discussed in rational terms. There is no reason to allow
the extremists to dominate the air waves.
Cable television presents
still another opportunity for community groups to get their message out,
though most fail because they ignore the production values viewers demand.
The World Wide Web because of its low cost has enormous potential as a
virtual town square. I think the lessons we are learning as people use the
Web around the country, is that people want to interact with other like
minded souls that's why chat rooms and listservs outstrip home pages in
Let me conclude with one unpopular observation -- I think
one of the reasons many journalists are cynical about civic life is that
many single issue groups, who claim a community relevance and legitimacy
they have not earned, are extremely adept at manipulating the media. They
use phony grass roots mail, fax and phone campaigns -- called Astroturf in
Washington -- to advance their agendas. They use emotional direct mail
campaigns to raise the money to get their TV spots on the air and create
conflict which draws journalists the way sugar draws bees.
In 1968 I
was one of the reporters who stood in front of the Hilton Hotel and
reported the police riot. It was a time of great turmoil in this city and
this country. The news media had done a first rate job of reporting the
civil rights revolution and was in the middle of illuminating the situation
in Vietnam. Watergate lay ahead. As a country we needed to make important
decisions and the news media served us well by giving us the informationwe
need to make those decisions. The information was accurate, the decisions
we made were correct. As a nation we will face equally important decisions
in the future. Unless we reverse the trends we see now in journalism the
newspapers and television networks of this country will not have the
authority to do what they did 30 years ago; they will not command our
attention because they will have lost their credibility. Many people are
beginning an effort to rebuild credibility but the road back will be long
and probably very rocky. I think journalists will get back their authority
if they remember the central idea of civic journalism -- that the purpose
of journalism is to serve people the news, information and analysis they
need in order to allow them to participate in their democracy.