Members of the Maine media were introduced in November to the New England News Forum, a new effort to promote accountability and transparency among news media.
As envisioned, the forum will use a Web site to create a “virtual public square.” News Forum Executive Director Bill Densmore hopes it will attract journalists, educators and ordinary citizens to discuss and debate news media practices. The forum says on its Web site it will promote “the practice of trusted, thorough and accountable journalism.”
At two meetings in Portland, Maine, Densmore joined outgoing Minnesota News Council Executive Director Gary Gilson and Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute to discuss that vision for the forum and to talk about what the forum is not: a news council.
A few news councils were created in the 1970s as a way to formally hear complaints about the news media. Gilson said that during his 14-year tenure at the Minnesota council, he urged its board to create other ways to help the news media. Complaint hearings, Gilson said, encouraged the news media to believe news councils “were out to get them.”
Densmore planned to submit a grant request to create a New England News Council. But he said an initial survey of editors found opposition to the very idea of complaint hearings. The current plan envisions having the forum address issues broader than complaints and to use “Jeffersonian devices — open discussion and forum-style debate.”
Response from the Maine news media representatives at the two sessions was positive. Teresa Hineline, city editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper based in Augusta, pronounced the idea “splendid” and said her paper and others “don’t explain ourselves enough.”
Carol Coultas, business reporter for the Sun-Journal daily in Lewiston, Maine, said the paper was already planning to make ethics and the Web its focus for the next year. Coultas said it would be great “if just once we beat lawyers and used car salesman” in surveys of trustworthiness.
Steele said he’ll be watching with great interest as the New England News Forum develops its Web site. He says it may provide a different framework for citizens to interact with the news media. And, Steele said, it may give reporters an outlet to air their ethical concerns in ways they can’t inside a newsroom.
The New England News Forum is starting with a $75,000 seed grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Densmore says he expects to have its Web site active by the first part of the year.