By Jan Schaffer
Pew Center for Civic Journalism
Minneapolis, June 20, 1997 - I want to welcome you all
here -- to what may be for many of you a venture into the realm
of what we sometimes call experimental journalism but I think
that by the end of the weekend, you're going to discover that
it's really nothing more than the most fundamental, basic good
journalism. Journalism 101 -- with at times some more interactive
elements thrown in.
And I don't necessarily mean on-line interactive -- I mean basic
shoe-leather interactive -- getting out into your communities
and listening to your people. But one of the wonderful things
is that civic journalism is wonderfully compatible with the new
Similarly, we want this workshop to be very interactive. And
to help that come about, we deliberately kept this session much
smaller. We had 80 journalists in Baltimore last fall, 80 in Cincinnati
this spring. While that's great for the ego, one thing we learned
is that if you have to walk up to a microphone to ask a question,
it kills a lot of spontaneity.
So, no aisle mikes here. We want to hear from you. Ask questions,
pose challenges, debate, agree, disagree, create, invent, take
risks -- tell us your stories. But most importantly, be in our
faces and the faces of our panelists -- sorry, folks.
We've titled this conference "Tapping the Hidden Stories
in Your Community" because it comes only three weeks after
the release of a new report, commissioned from research at the
Wichita Eagle on how to tap into what the Eagle's editor, Buzz
Merritt, calls "The Swamp" of civic life. It's sort
of a workbook on how to dig deeper into our communities so journalists
can get closer to issues and ideas before they filter up through
the food chain of community groups and elected officials. How
do we enter civic spaces now occupied by what our researcher,
Rich Harwood, calls civic catalysts -- people who make things
happen in a community, but don't hold any titles -- and civic
connectors, those folks who get things done in a community because
when they ask you to do something, you'll never turn them down.
Why bother? Well, it's certainly another way to diversify our
"source list" but with civic voices -- not just minority
voices. It's another way to get stories first (In Wichita, Harwood's
interviewers learned long before the Wichita Eagle that a major
local grocery store was going belly up.) It helps us ask better
journalistic questions, see more possibilities for framing stories
and write harder-hitting stories.
And all of this is really what civic journalism is all about:
to try more aggressively to get citizens' voices, their issues,
their agenda, into our news reports. Not just the voices of "elected
officials" or so-called "experts."
At its heart, civic journalism is about giving people the information
they need to behave like citizens -- rather than as consumers
of your product -- be you a newspaper, radio or television station.
And you'll hear this weekend a lot of talk about building community
There is a concern among some of us journalists that we are teaching
something called "learned helplessness" through our
news coverage. We do this in two ways: By buying into the expert
view of things. And buying into 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.
The Hopelessness 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 the problems we as a nation
have solved in the past.
Well, civic journalism means covering issues not so cynically
that your readers and listeners give up hope for any solutions,
but covering them so that you also focus on areas of agreement
as well as disagreement. And it means finding other people to
quote who have a sense of the possibilities.
Wichita Eagle editor Buzz Merritt says that to practice civic
journalism requires a bit of a mental journey -- a journey toward
the conscious realization that journalists are not totally detached
from civic life. Not totally detached from civic life.
Well, we journalists tend to be bi-polar creatures. So if were
not totally detached, we must be attached, right?
Herein lies the root of some of the criticism by the uninformed.
That civic journalism is advocacy journalism or boosterism.
Well, editors around the country who are practicing good civic
journalism -- and not all of it is good -- can tell you that taking
one step back from total detachment -- from being so far removed
that we don't care whether even our own system of government,
our democracy, is working (It's not our problem we say.) -- that
one step back from detachment is not antithetical to the values
of good journalism.
One step back from total detachment is not -- NOT -- one step
back from objectivity and neutrality as journalists attempt to
practice those things.
Rather it is a realization that our job is to do more than just
provide information -- cold, hard information. It's more than
just writing about our elected officials as "freaks" and turning
citizens into spectators to watch the freak show.
It's more than just getting the right facts, as Richard Harwood
would say. It's about getting the facts right. A subtle but important
distinction. So that when readers and listeners and viewers come
to our stories they are shaking their heads "Yes" -- it rings
true, that journalist "Got it."
I suspect that by now we have all seen the most recent feedback
on declining readership and viewership. Just last month the Pew
Research Center for People and the Press -- that's not us but
a brother organization -- reported that fewer than half the public
-- 42 percent -- now say they regularly watch one of three network
news broadcasts. That is down from 48 percent last year and 60
percent in 1993.
The percentage saying they had watched TV news "yesterday" slipped
to 59 percent this year. That number had been as high as 74 percent
as recently as 1994.
Now the poll found no further decline in newspaper readership
this year -- although we all know where circulation numbers are
heading. Only half those polled -- 50 per cent -- said they had
read a newspaper the day before the survey -- that's higher than
the 45 percent registered last year -- but down from 58 percent
in 1994. For you radio types the numbers are stable -- 4 in 10.
Clearly, we are becoming less indispensable to people's lives.
I think we at the Pew Center, and RTNDF and the Poynter Institute
see civic journalism as one way -- certainly not the only way
-- to do our jobs better.
1) It helps us listen better. One of the stories
you will hear this weekend is that long before Pat Buchanan won
the New Hampshire presidential primary, a partnership of the Boston
Globe, WABU-TV and NPR knew that the economy was a major issue
"It's still the economy," was the lead of the Globe story
in November -- based on listening to citizens in polls, discussion
groups and focus groups.
Yet Dole the day before the primary -- in February now -- says
he didn't realize how important the economy was to voters. And
neither did the rest of the national media. The New York Times
didn't launch its major -- and very good -- downsizing series
Imagine how different the national conversation would have been
if the press had listened to voters in the fall -- instead of
presuming that Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America would
be the agenda for the campaign.
2) Civic journalism helps us do our job better by framing
stories better. Buzz Merritt, the editor of the Wichita
Eagle, talks about a classic pro-con environmental story involving
Kansas farmland in which his reporter decided to go and find the
farmer who was neither totally for or totally against the proposal,
but was in-between. Was ambivalent.
A lot of civic journalism is about writing about those gray areas
of ambivalence because you know what? That's where most of our
They are not totally for or totally against abortion. Or totally
for or against raising taxes for school improvements, new roads,
There is almost always a much more complex web of concerns. Yet
how often do we journalists play up the conflicts -- the opposite
sides or poles of an issue -- rather than report the concerns
of most of our readers.
I'll tell you one thing. It's a lot harder to write about the
gray area. We all know how to write the black and white. In fact,
it's a knee-jerk reaction.
Karen Weintraub, a young civic journalist at the Virginian
Pilot in Norfolk recently described to journalists in our
Cincinnati workshop an exercise she tries to practice to keep
herself from doing knee-jerk journalism. She steps backs, pulls
out a sheet of paper and tries to figure out all the parties she
can think of who might have an interest in this particular issues.
Who are the "stakeholders." And what is this story really about
anyway? It's amazing, she says, what a different lens it brings
to your story.
3) Civic journalism is about helping citizens be citizens.
And sometimes these days, they need a little help. They need a
So when the Charlotte Observer wrote about crime in nine
of that city's most violent neighborhoods, it not only did computer-assisted
reporting and crunched crime numbers. It also published a list,
a needs list of what the residents -- not the newspaper -- said
the communities needed. And you know what? More than 1,000 people
from all over Charlotte responded.
As editor Jennie Buckner has said: "All too often, we print stories
that move our readers to call us and say: 'What can we do?" And
our response is: "It's not our problem."
4) Civic journalism is about recognizing that journalists,
despite all our good intentions have preconceived notions and
When Wichita Eagle reporter Jim Cross got wind of a wealthy
neighborhood that was planning to built a wall around itself,
his first instinct, he said, was to slam them as a bunch of elitists.
That was going to be -- in what is admittedly some civic journalism
jargon here -- his "master narrative." Instead -- prodded by Rich
Harwood -- he decided to go out and knock on some doors in that
community and you know what? He found out that these folks were
not very different from anybody else.
5) Finally civic journalism is about taking risks to
find a way to connect better to our readers. It's not
a process. It's very much a work in progress.
We at the Pew Center have come to use the shorthand that we are
sort of a venture capital fund for risky journalism experiments
around the country. But we are also serious journalists about
the business of serious journalism. Then we use the results of
our research and our funding -- the successes as well as the failures
-- the lessons learned, to educate the rest of the profession.
We're betting on leadership, on creativity. We'll have some hits
and some outs. But that's the nice thing about being a non-profit.
We don't have to worry about being profitable. We can afford to
So it was risky when the Bergen Record invited citizens
to a town meeting in Teaneck, NJ, to talk about why more school
resources were going to white kids than to black kids. It could
have become a melee but it didn't. It launched a community discussion.
And it was risky when in a statewide town hall meeting with Wisconsin
gubernatorial candidates, televised live, an executive producer
at Wisconsin Public Television gulped and called on a citizen
in an garish American flag shirt to ask a question on live television.
He could have been a nutcake. But you know what? He was just
your average street-smart citizen. And he asked the best question
of the evening. It was Page One news around the state. He simply
demanded that the two candidates deliver to him in writing, two
weeks before the election, their plans for reforming the state's
property tax system.
What were the candidates going to do? They paused for only a
moment, then said OK. No journalists had that kind of success.
It just goes to show a number of lessons we are learning: That
citizens are pretty smart, and that they can demand a kind of
accountability that journalists can't.
These were all cases where the journalists were objective --
just not totally detached. So, we're discovering how we can walk
and chew gum at the same time. In that vein I give you Ed Miller.
Let the games begin.