Present were several hundred tech
weens, librarians, community network developers, entrepreneurs.
was a recurring refrain: It was the search for stories -- narratives about
ideas and solutions that were working in one community that could be
shared or transported to other communities. The power of prose --
Stories? Narratives? Where were the journalists?
were not to be found here. Nor would they have been particularly welcome.
For another common refrain was the contempt in this crowd for the media.
After all, journalists were "traditional gatekeepers" -- and in the new
communications revolution, citizens will be empowered to bypass such
intermediaries and access their information directly -- from original
sources, from the wires, from one-on-one dialogues with other people. Free
information, unfettered at last from the news-hole and the air-time
constraints of newspapers or broadcasters.
"Journalism is for
journalists," were the complaints over dinner. "It's about threatening
those in power. It's not about empowering others."
in a cocoon that has nothing to do with the real world."
this conference was all about folks who wanted to run their OWN community
newspapers. Only they wanted to do it ON-LINE.
And it was just another
lesson in how far journalists have fallen, how much credibility we've lot,
how eager some people are to dismiss us from their lives and replace us
with alternative sources of information.
And it's all ratified by the
numbers: latest circulation figures show punishing declines for nearly
every major newspaper in the country -- down 4 percent for the LA
Times, 7 percent for Newsday, 5 percent for the New York
People admit they're not reading and watching. A recent
Times-Mirror survey showed that only 45 percent of respondents had read a
newspaper the previous day -- down from 58 percent a year ago. Same with
TV news: 61 percent said they had watched network news the previous day
versus 74 percent a year ago.
Then, as you all read, on Monday another
Times-Mirror poll shows a gaping cultural divide between journalists and
- Sixty-six percent of the public think
journalists are too focused on misdeeds and failings of public figures --
about the same percentage of journalists disagree.
percent of the public think the press is too adversarial -- about the same
percentage of journalists disagree.
- The public says the
press has made too much of Bill Clinton's character and Whitewater problems
and gives journalists a C; the press thinks its had done a good job
covering the administration and grades itself a B.
So, there's a
lot of public discontent with media out there and it's not all aimed at
tabloid or sensational journalism.
Long before this study came out,
journalists began recognizing that they were not connecting very well to
their readers and viewers. Civic journalism is one attempt to address
that. I can't promise you that civic journalism will fix all the problems.
But for editors and news directors who are trying it, they are getting some
OK, a definition.
Civic Journalism is
simply an effort by journalists to reach out to the public more
aggressively in the reporting process-- to listen to how citizens frame
their problems and what citizens see as solutions to those problems.
Civic journalists strive to go beyond their dog-eared Rolodexes filled
with the phone numbers of elected officials and experts willing to render
their verdicts on the issue du jour. Instead, they try to tap into the
wisdom of the American people, giving citizens a bigger voice in describing
the forces that affect their lives. Sometimes these listening exercises
occur through polls and surveys, through town halls and focus groups, or
through more intimate "living room" or "kitchen" conversations, often
convened by a local newspaper or television station.
journalists discover that citizens are pretty smart at pinpointing the
problems. And pretty creative in suggesting what can be done about
Journalists find this information enriches their report and gives
them road maps to do what they do best -- add value, bring in context and
analysis -- so they can give citizens the information they need to increase
their participation in the civic life of a democracy.
begin to hear their own voices in the media, when citizens have an
opportunity to discuss and debate issues in common, an interesting energy
evolves and they are often inspired to get involved, take action --
participate in the life of their community.
There is a concern among
some journalists that we are teaching something called "learned
helplessness" in our news coverage. We do this in two ways: By buying into
the expert view of things or the hopelessness view.
The expert view
suggests that our problems are so great that only the experts are qualified
to speak about them. Nobody else is worth quoting.
view occurs when we don't find sources to quote who have the sense that the
problems we're writing about are no more difficult or insurmountable than
problems we as a nation have solved in the past.
This isn't rocket
science. It isn't even particularly new. It's the same kind of thing the
small town newspaper editor used to do when he walked out his front door to
have lunch in town and ended up chatting with half a dozen people along the
way and learned what was on their minds. It's the kind of information that
journalists used to gather off-hours -- at their churches, their PTA
meetings -- except not as many journalists have the time or inclination for
such things these days.
Mind you, though, talking to the public is a
scary proposition for some journalists. They balk, they make excuses. They
say this is pandering to the public. They say this might make them less
But editors and news directors who have used civic
journalism techniques talk of epiphanies, of the sense of connection. They
say they will never return to the old ways of doing journalism.
amazing what you learn when you talk to the public. For one thing they
don't talk in terms of scorecards, who's winning who's losing, who's up in
the polls, who's down.
Citizens talk about very basic things, often
Take Charlotte, N.C., where the Charlotte Observer
newspaper and WSOC-TV, the ABC affiliate, decided to tackle crime in a
joint effort called "Taking Back Our Neighborhoods/ Carolina Crime
Solutions." But they did it by first sending reporters out into some of
the city's worst-hit neighborhoods. They talked to community leaders, they
convened a town hall meeting, reporters spent the night in the community.
And only then did they write their stories. Seven neighborhood profiles,
to date. Seven different tales of how those residents view their problems.
And just as importantly, seven lists of very specific things that
residents said their communities needed: recreation centers, baseballs and
bats, uniforms for the girls' drill team.
Not the stuff of local
ordinances, or state statute. So, a bank raised its hand and donated
$50,000 for a new recreation center; 18 local law firms volunteered to
filed public nuisance suits, pro bono, to close crack houses. And one
woman who knew how to sew raised her hand and said "I can make those
drill-team uniforms" -- and those girls were so proud they didn't want to
take those uniforms off to go to sleep.
Readers and listeners just
needed a road map of what other people needed and they were happy to
Another secret to Charlotte's success: each profile of
crime is accompanied by, if you will, profiles in courage, of people in
these neighborhoods who succeeded despite the odds in overcoming a problem.
These are the stories, the prose narratives, that the public access
computer networks are looking to share.
In Madison, Wis., "We the
People/Wisconsin" -- one of the nation's longest-running civic journalism
projects -- has invited citizens to draft their own state budgets, vote on
which health plan they wanted, and quiz all kinds of state and national
candidates for office. Again and again, they have discovered that citizen
involvement can made a difference.
One of the best examples happened
last fall, during the gubernatorial debates. Three locations throughout
the state were hooked up by satellite to debate-central. And from Eau
Claire, Wis., a citizen wearing an American flag shirt raised his hand.
Oh no, the executive producer groans, thinking this man is surely a
nutcake. But the guy ended up asking the best question of the campaign. It
was Page One news around the state the next day.
He simply demanded
that the candidates deliver, in writing, their specific plans for property
tax reform -- and deliver them two weeks before the election. The
candidates were stunned for a second -- because they had managed to avoid
this through the whole campaign. And then they gulped and said --
It just showed the benefit of a citizen asking the question. The
candidates brushed off the journalists, but they couldn't kiss off the
citizen. Besides, a journalist asking that question would have sounded
This year, the Pew Center for Civic Journalism is funding 12
civic journalism efforts around the country. In Rochester, N.Y., dealing
with education; in Tallahassee, Fla. with a community dialogue; in Bergen
County, N.J., with the Quality of Life; in San Jose, Calif., with
legislative reforms. In every one, a newspaper has teamed up with a radio
or television station in its market.
And the projects keep taking
surprising twists and turns.
Last month, The Bergen Record
tried an experiment that brought three local cable companies -- TCI,
Time-Warner and Comcast-- into a civic journalism exercise that invited
citizens to call in live questions to elected officials. Seventy citizens
called, asked great questions and the experiment was such a success, it's
going to continue in an expanded form.
Tallahassee has invited its
residents to participate in a three-year dialogue about the future of the
community, called The Public Agenda. In December, the Tallahassee Free-Net
devoted two hours exclusively to the project, and more than 300 citizens
called in to chat on-line. It was such a hit that the Free-Net has just
added 30 more phone lines for more chat sessions.
Mario Morino, of
the Morino Institute, says that the new
Communications Revolution is
marked by a number of phenomena, including:
- a level of
interaction that allows every participant to be a producer of information
as well as a consumer;
- the struggle for future market position
among the converging telecommunications, entertaining, publishing and
information technology industries;
- and the growing
populist communications movement in which forms of public access networks
allow people to make their voices heard and develop their own means for
Civic Journalism finds itself at the crossroads
of a number of these currents. It's interactive in that it seeks to get
reporters -- and their editors-- out in the community, talking and
listening; in future market positioning, it seeks to help restore
credibility and meaningfulness to newspapers and broadcasters who seem to
have lost both; and it's populist in that it seeks to give the public a
voice in the communications process.
And from what we've seen, the
public likes to be invited into the process and, once they get there, they
have something worthwhile to say.