in three minutes a few words about civic journalism. My work in it stems
from a thirty year love affair I have had with journalism and it's inspired
by my sense that there is a serious problem with my old craft.
the problem. Let me put it bluntly: I think the American news business is
broken, busted, in deep doo-doo to quote a famous American. I hold that
belief because of what I see and hear every day in the press and on the
air. And because the best social science research has been telling us about
this breakdown for a decade.
Now we're seeing the problem more starkly
in the numbers of people who say they have stopped watching and reading
(though not listening). Andrew Kohut's Pew Research Center for People and
the Press has been tracking the data for a long time. Consider the numbers
they released earlier this week. Fewer than half the public -- 42% -- to be
exact, now say they regularly watch one of the nightly network news
broadcasts. That's down from 60% just three years ago. Credibility, the
currency of a news organization, is also down. Both Dan Rather and Peter
Jennings have suffered small but significant erosion of their
believability. CNN and ABC News, who have been the most highly rated
networks for credibility in recent surveys, have also seen their
What about the newspapers? They had a very bad year
last year with 17 of the top 25 newspapers suffering declining circulation,
including some of our best -- The New York Times, The Wall Street
Journal, The Washington Post, they have all seen their
circulation decline. And newspapers died in New York, Milwaukee, Houston
The good news for the people in this room is that the
number of hours people spend listening to the radio seems to be holding
firm. Could it be that substance sells???
One of the most chilling
findings about the state of our nation was contained in a recent study done
by the Mellman Group, a Democratic firm, and Public Opinion Strategies, a
Republican research firm, that found more than half the people they asked
said that it is the special interests who really controlled things in
Washington. That's more than Congress, President Clinton and the parties
all added together. And that finding signals a dangerous degree of national
cynicism. When people become cynical about civic life, they stop reading
and watching. They don't need what we're selling every day.
seems to be happening -- both newspapers and television are losing their
grip on their future. Young people simply are not developing the news
habit. Less than a third of people aged 18-34 say they read a newspaper or
watch a network newscast on a regular basis. Does that demographic group
ring a bell with anyone? It's the group advertisers care most about.
OK so there's the problem--the audience for big media journalism is
going away. In significant numbers Americans are shunning the news media.
So what, you may say? Just market forces at work and like buggy-whip makers
the people who work in the news business are just going to have to adapt to
the future, find new jobs. That might be a reasonable reaction to most
market pressures but the news media are simply too important to the success
of our form of government to be allowed to fail under the pressures of the
market or anything else. Journalism may not be popular but it is absolutely
essential. News is the oxygen of a self-governing society.
the solution to the problem of a failing industry?
My answer to that
question is civic journalism. Civic journalism is a label for an approach
to journalism I believe to be a reasonable solution to the problem.
How about a definition? The soundbite definition is this -- civic
journalism is an effort to get the concerns of ordinary people, the
citizens, to get their concerns into the newspaper and on the air. It is an
effort to turn away from the arrogance, the insularity, the self-promotion
and, yes, the ethical failures that have corrupted many journalists.
Public affairs, public life, civic engagement, call it what you will,
has come to mean government officials and politicians talking to
journalists. An insiders game and the public has been left out of that
The news has become a place for experts, not ordinary
people and their concerns. It is synonymous with conflict, with a polarized
discussion that's akin to a talk show in which people from only the most
extreme ends of the spectrum get invited.
Take the issue of abortion,
for 20 years the flash point of American politics. If you listen to a talk
show -- present company excepted -- you hear the pro-lifers against the
pro-choicers, bumper sticker philosophies -- while even the most
superficial look at where the American people stand on abortion shows that
about 7 out of 10 are very conflicted about the issue and reject both
points of view.
Civic journalism is about framing stories through a
different lens, through a lens that includes the citizens' perspective not
just the journalists', not just public officials'. Civic journalism is
about inclusion, about getting the people into the tent. If you believe in
democracy, you have to hope that happens.
Does civic journalism work?
Yes, we think so, and I would be happy to talk about how it's working
during the q and a.
But in the few seconds I have left, let me just
answer the question that's usually asked next. Is it a fad? You might want
to ask Bob Oakes and Sam Fleming at WBUR in Boston, Sally Eisele and Raul
Ramirez in San Francisco, Marla Crockett and Jeff McCrehan in Dallas. They
have been using the techniques every day for several years. Where else is
it working? In Tallahassee; Charlotte; Bergen County, New Jersey; Rochester
and Binghamton, New York; Spokane and Seattle, Washington; and Cleveland,
Ohio to name a few. There are statewide partnerships at work in Florida,
North Carolina, and Wisconsin, and there were successful civic journalism
partnerships in Iowa and New Hampshire during the presidential primary
season and we see one coming together in the biggest state -- California --
for the fall.
Two final words: I'm finished.