The Internet can be one of the most aggravating devices in a civic journalist’s life – and one of the most useful. “Urgent” Internet and e-mail messages can clog journalists’ inboxes, distracting them from that 15-inch story the editor demands within an hour. Irate readers and viewers can use the Internet to pester a journalist over some real or imagined slight in yesterday’s news. Internet-based reporting can lead unwary journalists to believe they have thoroughly covered a topic, only to find that wired citizens hold VERY different views from the rotary-dial phone crowd. Good Internet-based reporting can produce more must-run stories than any journalist can handle. But panelists at the SPJ National Convention session “From Civic Journalism to Interactive Journalism” agreed that savvy journalists can use the Internet and e-mail to involve communities, increase audience and – most of all – produce the best civic journalism any reporter is capable of.
Kate Reardon, (Everett) Herald reporter, described how she used the Internet as one key tool in an eight-month “Waterfront Renaissance” public service project to “engage readers to dream about the future of the city’s public waterfront.” Funded with a $15,000 grant from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, The Herald produced a five-part series in the paper outlining the public waterfront plans, challenges and promises. It produced radio interviews with city officials and citizens and a cable-access video guide to Waterfront Renaissance properties. A trolley bus tour of four waterfront areas and a town hall meeting gained direct citizen input to the waterfront plans, and an interactive mapping program allowed citizens to show officials exactly what they had in mind for the waterfront properties. “This was hundreds of acres of public lands that needed strong public input for long-range decisions about our city,” Reardon said. “We brought in waterfront revitalization experts to help produce informed public debate. We visited classrooms and local clubs and organizations, and we helped organize four community watchdog groups.” The project was a civic journalism success, she said. Of more than 2,000 individual citizens who had comments and input to the waterfront plans, some 1,500 responded via the Internet. The interactive mapping program, developed for The Herald by Seattle-based software company Smashing Ideas, resulted in such excellent public input that Port of Everett planners adopted several ideas into plans for a 100-acre waterfront plat, and city officials actually recalled preliminary project plans to the drawing board to incorporate citizen ideas generated by The Herald’s interactive series, Reardon said.
Ken Sands, Spokesman-Review interactive editor, said e-mail was an indispensable part of the paper’s coverage of attacks on the World Trade Center. Sands used the paper’s database of more than 3,000 readers’ e-mail addresses to gather a broad sample of public comments on the attacks. He sent e-mails asking for comments in the first few hours after the attacks and how people were coping on the following day. “This is a new story form,” Sands said. “It’s simple, it’s quick and it’s powerful. We got excellent reader commentary for a Sept. 11 extra edition, and ran a full page of letters to the editor in Wednesday’s paper, based on e-mails,” he said. Spokesman-Review reporters have used the e-mail system to continue public input for stories on how the attacks affected travel and investment plans, the public sense of patriotism, what sacrifices citizens would make for personal safety, and whether regular sports events should have been held during the first weekend following the attacks. E-mails also have been used for reader input into stories on the local economy, consumer confidence, and what military response the United States should take.
OBSTACLES STILL EXIST
Despite the positive experience of The Herald and the Spokesman-Review, Ted Glasser, Stanford University communications professor, cautioned that several elements are needed to build good, broad-based citizen involvement through the Internet. The first factor is reach. While most reporters are surrounded by pervasive Web access, remember that the world is not yet completely wired, Glasser cautioned. Reporters have to find ways to increase citizen access and to build the values necessary to spread interactivity. Keys to a more effective wired citizenry, he said, are access, competence and accountability. While a growing number of people are gaining Internet access, they won’t participate in online citizenship unless they feel competent to do so – and today that means being able to type and being “eloquent” enough to confidently stand up for their beliefs in an online forum. Without accountability – putting a name with your comments – online commentary can degenerate into faceless mud-slinging. “We also must have a moderator to maintain civility and to protect the content of postings,” Glasser said. “It’s important that all citizens get a chance to contribute, and that there be enough background explanation so that we wind up with informed and deliberative content tied to the article or issue. “These elements will create the conditions for interactivity on overall coverage, rather than just on specific articles,” he said. Sands said the Spokesman-Review maintains balance by rotating the citizens it e-mails for public comment. “Over four years, we built our large database of people who e-mail or participate in our Internet site. Using that database is no more unbalanced than coverage by a reporter who reaches for his Rolodex of ‘proven quotes’ when he needs public input for some story. E-mail is one of the most efficient reporting tools I’ve ever seen.” When asked how she finds the time to answer readers’ e-mails, Reardon said she doesn’t begrudge the hour-and-a-half she spends answering the messages daily. “Every one of those people read the Everett Herald, and they all look for my byline. I think if we pay more attention to relations with our readers – if we show that our paper really cares about them – we’ll keep our circulation up and we’ll be able to do more great civic journalism.”
George Bukota provides public relations and industrial journalism services for clients in aviation, biotechnology, chemicals, food processing, processing and sensing instruments, plastics and refining. He has more than 25 years experience in PR and journalism, including work with The Associated Press and CBS Radio News.