In the summer of 2000, The New York Times published a 10-day narrative series that explored how race is lived in America. Reporters flooded cities around the country and told the stories of communities, including an integrated church in Georgia, a segregated Cuban neighborhood in Miami and a newspaper troubled by its own coverage of race in Akron, Ohio. The stories won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
All in journalism’s top echelons agree the series was powerful, meaningful and insightful.
But was it civic journalism?
Soma Golden Behr, an assistant managing editor at The Times who worked on the series from the idea phase through publication, says definitely not.
“We did not think of this as civic journalism,” she said. “It was to explore race in an individual sense, not a community sense.”
But Gil Thelen, senior vice president and executive editor at the Tampa Tribune – and one of civic journalism’s early proponents – scoffs at the denials.
“That project reeks of civic journalism,” he said. “They say they don’t do that, but they’re doing it.”
To Thelen, the series had many of the qualities civic journalists hold dear.
“It reached uncommon voices in the community to evaluate facts and opinions. It reached the ‘unusual suspects,’ “ he said. “It wasn’t framed in a conflict model.”
The civic journalism movement has been as controversial as it is difficult to define. The idea started to take hold in the late 1980s, and some studies now show that one-fifth of daily newspapers in the U.S. say they use it in their regular coverage. But changing views on the role of the news media and changing techniques in gathering and reporting the news are evidence that the influence of the civic journalism movement has reached newsrooms all over the country – whether editors are calling it civic journalism or not.
Proponents credit civic journalism for positive changes in the industry that have led to better coverage of readers and what matters to them. Opponents say these changes are just good journalism – an evolution of craft that would have occurred with or without the hype that has surrounded community journalism.
Now, the push for civic-minded journalism has reached something of a crossroads. The Pew Center for Civic Journalism, an organization that has funded many of the civic journalism experiments across the country, will close its door in May. The debate surrounding civic journalism has died down; though not dead, the volume has certainly been turned down. And, though many argue that the civic journalism movement already has had lasting effects on the profession, others wonder what the future holds for the ideals behind the controversial catch phrase “civic journalism.”
A CONTROVERSIAL START
One of civic journalism’s pioneers, Buzz Merritt of the Wichita Eagle, was disgusted by the way the candidates in the 1988 presidential election refused to address the issues, resorting instead to negative advertising and mud-slinging. So, for the paper’s coverage of the 1990 Kansas governor’s race, Merritt decided to make a change. He made an effort to determine what citizens wanted and needed from politicians. His paper’s coverage was driven by those issues and by the citizens, not by the candidates.
Back when the whole thing started, Merritt says, he had one intention: to do journalism in a way that was more helpful to democracy. He wanted to do something about the ill repute in which journalism and its practitioners were held by the public.
Simultaneously, editors around the country were coming to the same conclusions, realizing that political spin doctors were setting the tone for journalism.
“What they were saying and what the public was thinking about weren’t the same,” said Leonard Witt, former director of the civic journalism initiative at National Public Radio. “The movement grew from there.”
Jay Rosen, a New York University professor at the forefront of the civic journalism movement, defines civic journalism as: “An approach to the daily business of the craft that calls on journalists to address people as citizens, potential participants in public affairs, rather than victims or spectators; help the political community act upon, rather than just learn about, its problems; improve the climate of public discussion, rather than simply watch it deteriorate; and help public life go well, so that it earns its claim on our attention.”
Little did civic journalist’s early practitioners know that their efforts would lead to more than a decade of debate.
Some journalists have criticized the movement because they believe it blurs the line between reporter and community, leading to compromised independence. These critics argue that civic journalists become too involved with their sources and that they become mouthpieces for community activism.
The most persistent critics latched on to the failures of early attempts at civic journalism and wouldn’t let go, said Thelen. “Some of those experiments were wrong-headed,” he said. “They crossed some lines into advocacy and got the newspaper into the role of protagonist and active participant, which raised the question of objectivity. But people learned from those things.”
And as journalists learned from their mistakes, the movement grew. A research study commissioned by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and conducted by Professor Lewis A. Friedland and Ph.D. candidate Sandy Nichols of the University of Wisconsin analyzed projects submitted to the Pew Center for funding, advice, or consideration for an award. All of these projects were defined by their authors as civic journalism. Considering only these projects, the authors determined that some form of civic journalism was being practiced in at least one-fifth of American daily newspapers from 1994 to 2001. That’s 322 daily papers out of 1,500 in the country.
The authors believe their estimate is probably low because not all newspapers that practiced civic journalism during that time contacted the Pew Center. A more accurate number of newspapers that have used civic journalism techniques appears “to be somewhere between one-third and one-half” of American dailies, Friedland and Nichols said.
Civic journalism has been practiced in 200 cities and 47 states, according to the study.
During its 10-year history, the Pew Center has funded many projects. For example, in 2001, the center gave a $20,000 grant to the Savannah Morning News, savannahnow.com and Georgia Public Radio to help the community manage competing demands for water. The project included hiring a consultant to study two water sources: the Savannah River and the Floridian aquifer. Journalists created an interactive map to help people see where their drinking water was coming from and to estimate how much different proposals would cost.
In 2000, the Huntington (W.Va.) Herald-Dispatch and West Virginia Public Television and Public Radio received a grant of $18,000 to examine the state’s future without coal. The journalists used polling, town meetings and an interactive Web site to determine the effects on the economy. They also studied other states that have run out of easy-to-mine coal and states that have lost other major industries in hopes of finding solutions.
After examining these and other projects, the University of Wisconsin study also concluded that the civic journalism movement has helped the community in concrete ways. “New ways of reporting the news have emerged that help citizens deliberate on important problems, address and solve them, and increase their voices in the community and in the pages of the papers,” Friedland and Nichols wrote.
The study found significant, but not conclusive, evidence that civic journalism resulted in improved citizen skills, formation of new civic organizations and increased volunteerism, among other things.
Two other pieces of research reinforce the findings. In 1997, the American Society of Newspaper Editors surveyed journalists about civic journalism practices – without using the controversial label. Levels of support for the techniques ranged from 68 percent to 96 percent. A similar 1997 study, this one by the Associated Press Managing Editors, found that 56 percent of news executives supported civic journalism.
But even as more journalists have embraced the ideas of civic journalism, a strong resistance has continued to make the phrase “community journalism” a divisive one. It’s not the first time a new journalistic concept has met with resistance, according to Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute.
“Journalists are unnecessarily defensive by disposition,” he said.
As an earlier example, Clark pointed to the Hutchins Commission report issued in 1947. The report, titled “A Free and Responsible Press,” was the first to warn that “the primary danger of a free press is the concentration of ownership,” according to Clark. It also discussed the importance of diversity of news coverage, saying: “The images repeated and emphasized (should be totally representative) of the social group as it is. The truth about any social group, though it should not exclude its weaknesses and vices, includes a recognition of its values, its aspirations and its common humanity.”
Rank-and-file journalists of the time were dismissive of the report. Over the next 50 years, however, the document’s theories have become widely respected, Clark said. He expects the same thing will happen with civic journalism.
The advent of the movement was met with “mostly irrational and knee-jerk negativity,” he said. “Now, as we enter the second phase of the movement, its best features will meld with the routines of daily journalism, while the weaker parts will be jettisoned.”
THE SECOND PHASE
Some practices, touted by civic journalism aficionados as their own, are commonplace in newspapers across the country. For example, when newspapers cover a controversial issue or an upcoming vote, they routinely print info boxes on how to contact legislators. Frank Denton, editor of the Wisconsin State Journal and one of civic journalism’s most vocal supporters, has a name for these: democracy boxes. He sees them as just another way of prodding the public to become involved in government.
The State Journal also has created a new section in its editorial pages: “Your Forum.” The editors present an issue to the readers, then solicit their opinions about it.
Efforts like these were unheard of 20 years ago, according to Denton.
“The issues were determined by politicians, or you’d throw it out there, write an editorial and walk away,” he said.
Thelen, another self-described practitioner of civic journalism, also has seen its ideals begin to permeate newsrooms – even those run by the movement’s critics.
“The important principles of civic journalism have been validated and incorporated into newsrooms that would deny that it’s there,” he said.
The New York Times race series is just one of his examples. Thelen also described as civic in nature the core values in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s book “The Elements of Journalism,” published in 2001. They’re things such as accountability to the community, diversity and fundamental accuracy. Kovach and Rosenstiel also recommend moving beyond the conflict frame and describe the role of the journalist as a committed observer. They don’t use the term “civic journalism,” but they’re championing the concept, Thelen said.
According to Thelen, Northwestern University’s Readership Institute also embraces civic journalism’s philosophies – without labeling them as such. The Institute’s study of newsroom culture has found that newsrooms with inward-focused, militaristic cultures have lower readership numbers than those with the open, collaborative approaches used by civic journalists.
“It’s subtle, and it’s pervasive,” Thelen said of civic journalism’s effect.
What’s more, civic journalism’s techniques are being used as a way to break a lot of bad habits that persist in newsrooms today, said Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Pew Center.
Instead of reporters acting as stenographers – just writing down what people say in a stilted format – they now explore the deeper meanings of those interviews. Fewer journalists take on the role of “Rolodex commando” – someone who repeatedly turns to the same tried and true sources any time they need a quote. Instead, more reporters are making a real effort to get out of the newsroom and into the community, where they will find new sources with unique ideas.
Schaffer called civic mapping “one of the biggest gifts civic journalism has given to journalism.” Civic mapping is more than just making a map; it’s going into the community and meeting the movers and shakers. Journalists then chart the locations of those people and the places where ideas come from. The concept encourages the use of beat development days, during which reporters simply hang out in the community and figure out what’s going on – without writing a thing.
Many newspapers now include reporters’ telephone numbers or e-mail addresses along with their bylines, making it easier for readers to get in touch. Schaffer said this, too, is a result of civic journalism.
To Poynter’s Clark, the civic journalism movement represents a significant reform in American journalism, most strongly evidenced by improved political reporting.
“Now, we’re more likely to get some political reporting which does not frame an issue or debate in terms of political motivation,” he said. “It’s hard to do that kind of political story nowadays without being questioned by the readers and viewers.”
Witt agreed. Some people continue to cover politics as a horse race, but at least they are aware they’re doing it, he said. And almost everyone now keeps an eye on the spin doctors.
In the broadcast world, civic journalism has created a debate about how to move beyond the faux-investigations that used to rule television’s sweeps weeks, according to Dan Bradley, vice president of news for the Media General Broadcast Group.
“It takes just as much effort to produce bad journalism as it does to produce good journalism. … Now we’re looking for ways to bridge that disconnect from the community.”
‘JUST GOOD JOURNALISM’
The University of Wisconsin study found that regional newspapers with circulations of 250,000 or less are most likely to complete civic journalism projects. Seventy-five percent of the projects in the study were done by papers of this size.
Major metropolitan newspapers are far less likely to buy into the idea.
When told some consider The New York Times’ race series a great civic journalism project, Behr resisted the label.
“We do journalism, and this is the best it gets. It was great, talented writers, and the commitment to spend the money and the time. I don’t want to put it in a box.”
Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post, also refuses to let civic journalism take credit for positive change in his newsroom. The fact that coverage of communities has improved during the same time period as the rise of civic journalism is mostly coincidental, he said. The Post, as well as the American Society of Newspaper Editors, had begun to address the issue before Jay Rosen and Buzz Merritt came into the spotlight.
“We’ve been evolving for quite some time,” Downie said. “Some of the things (considered part of civic journalism) are just good journalism. They’re just covering the community well.”
As an example, he pointed to political coverage. Expanding that coverage to include more stories about issues, what’s on people’s minds and what’s going on in the community – rather than just politicians’ speeches – is a good idea.
“(But) The Post didn’t convene town meetings or only cover the top three ideas given to us by readers,” he said.
Nor did The New York Times. The vision for the Pulitzer Prize-winning series was to write about race in America – a topic Behr feels isn’t discussed or written about enough. The series aimed to understand relationships and to tell stories in the most dramatic, compelling way possible, Behr said.
“There was no genesis to change something (behind the series),” she said. “I resent the idea that we had some other agenda.”
Downie goes a step further, saying that some who profess to practice civic journalism are actually at odds with covering the community well. Some news organizations have editors who are visible in the community and who do readership surveys, but don’t put their money where their mouths are.
“Newspapers were cutting back on staff but would use occasional civic journalism projects to make people think they were covering the community right. … But they’re not spending money on the news hole, on reporting.”
Although many critics have quieted, they still worry about the things going on at the State Journal and other bastions of civic journalism. One of the State Journal’s most celebrated projects was “Schools of Hope,” which revealed a wide gap between the learning success of whites and minorities. The solution was to recruit tutors, both from the newsroom and the community. Now, there are more than 800 tutors working to help minority children learn, including Denton himself. The editor spends two hours a week tutoring an African-American child.
While Downie sees nothing wrong with journalists tutoring or doing other volunteer work of their choice on their own time, he believes it’s a problem when organized by a media outlet.
“A lot of civic journalism supporters believe journalism should have certain results, and stories should have desired ends. That’s not our role,” he said. “That’s very dangerous. … A news reporter needs to be objective and cover all sides.”
THE PEW CENTER CLOSES ITS DOORS
One of civic journalism’s staunchest supporters has been the Pew Center, established in 1993. The Pew Center’s Web site defines it as “an incubator for civic journalism experiments that enable news organizations to create and refine better ways of reporting the news to re-engage people in public life.”
The center will close its doors in May, when its charitable funding expires.
The Pew Center played a large role in nurturing civic journalism by providing grants to news organizations. The center also produced workshops, publications, videos and other outreach programs. In its nearly 10 years of seeding civic journalism projects, the Pew Center has funded 120 projects and tracked more than 600 others. All but three states – Hawaii, Nevada and Wyoming – were represented.
Many journalists say it’s not an end to the movement, but the beginning of a new chapter – one in which civic journalism’s techniques permeate the mainstream, whether traditionalists like it or not.
Schaffer dismisses the theory that the end of the Pew Center means the end of the movement.
“Sadly, the perception exists that the Pew Trust is abandoning civic journalism.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, she said.
“They tend to fund projects that move the needle. They showed newspapers what they could do if they want to do it. They always meant for this to be a 10-year project,” she said. “It’s time to fold our tents and declare success.”
One indicator of progress is the Pew Center’s successor project: J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism. The lab, based at the University of Maryland, will give grants to news organizations and help them build reader-friendly computer projects to complement their stories.
It’s a logical outgrowth of the Pew Center’s last two funding cycles, in which projects have increasingly involved technology, Schaffer said. One example was the “New Hampshire Tax Challenge.” In 1999, New Hampshire Public Radio, the Nashua Telegraph newspaper and various civic groups developed an online tax calculator that allowed citizens to calculate the effects of several tax proposals on their pocketbooks.
In Washington state, the Everett Herald and KSER public radio received a $15,000 grant in 2001 to develop online maps. Using the computer, readers and schoolchildren could create their own visions for the renovation of the city’s waterfront. The newspaper then “convened a town meeting, produced a historical video, conducted a poll, examined successful waterfront development models and created a community conversation on the land,” according to the Pew Center’s Web site.
“We’ve seen the sun set on old-fashioned interaction, and we’re moving into the digital arena,” Schaffer said.
One of J-lab’s goals is building templates for similar projects that all newspapers can use to involve readers and thereby fulfill civic journalism’s mission.
Another possible way to sustain civic journalism lies in the newsrooms themselves. The University of Wisconsin study found that 7 percent of newspapers have a strong or very strong commitment to the concept.
“(These) may be sufficient to sustain the diffusion of new practice, as civic journalism loses the incubator of the Pew Center,” according to the study.
The founders of a fledgling professional organization hope to bring committed journalists together to replace the Pew Center as a centralized forum for discussion and action. The group, known as the Public Journalism Network, is based at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, where Witt now teaches.
The Public Journalism Network convened its first meeting in late January, where its members worked to write a mission statement. The group defined itself, in part, this way: “The Public Journalism Network is a global professional association of journalists and educators interested in exploring and strengthening the relationship between journalism and democracy.”
Two of the group’s core beliefs are: “We believe journalism and democracy work best when news, information and ideas flow freely; when news fairly portrays the full range and variety of life and culture of all communities; when public deliberation is encouraged and amplified; and when news helps people function as political actors and not just as political consumers.”
And: “We believe we must articulate a public philosophy for journalism that helps journalists reach deeper into the communities they serve and that helps communities work more closely with the journalists who serve them.”
Witt hopes the new group will be a forum for continued experiments.
“Without a professional organization, civic journalism could slowly disappear and become a reform movement of the 1990s rather than an ongoing movement,” he said. “We want to keep the conversation going about the role of journalism in a democratic society.”
Several schools throughout the country already are teaching civic journalism and could become centers for excellence, he said. His goal is to see the concept taught at every American journalism school and perhaps at some abroad as well.
“We don’t want to revolutionize journalism,” he said. “We just want to improve it a little bit.”
Gina Barton is a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.