The Gospel of Public Journalism  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 1994

The Gospel of Public Journalism   

Adherents of the fast-growing movement say news organizations must listen more closely to their audiences and play more active roles in their communities if they are to flourish. But nonbelievers worry it will hurt credibility by turning the media into a player rather than a chronicler.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

Related reading:
   » The Death of a Pioneer

Imagine you're a newspaper editor faced with declining circulation, dwindling ad revenues and the feeling that you and your community are like an unhappily married couple barely on speaking terms. You have big problems and no clue how to fix them.

You're not alone. Many newspaper editors and publishers are worried about the state of journalism. And many are gravitating toward the hottest secular religion in the news business, public journalism.

Inside the tent, preachers Davis "Buzz" Merritt Jr. and Jay Rosen are warning that newspapers, communities and democracy itself will die unless journalists and the public team up in a search for solutions to community woes. Dozens of editors like what Merritt and Rosen have to say and are joining the faithful.

But some doubters are uneasy. They fear the movement poses a threat to traditional journalistic values.

The goal of public journalism – a.k.a. civic journalism, public service journalism or community-assisted reporting – is to "reconnect" citizens with their newspapers, their communities and the political process, with newspapers playing a role not unlike that of a community organizer. According to the gospel of public journalism, professional passivity is passé; activism is hot. Detachment is out; participation is in. Experts are no longer the quote-machines of choice; readers' voices must be heard.

Public journalists are tired of not being allowed to care passionately about their communities and act on their convictions; they believe they have to play major roles in solving the problems of their cities, towns and neighborhoods. "We are part of the community, so they're our problems too," says Marty Steffans, news manager for public life of the Dayton Daily News.

The public journalism movement is sweeping through newsrooms from Bremerton, Washington, to Charlotte, North Carolina. Television and radio stations are joining too. The nascent movement – heavily influenced by, but hardly limited to, Knight-Ridder papers – is still defining itself. That makes it hard to pin down precisely what it is and harder to convert those who treasure the traditional approach to journalism.

So far its components include asking readers to help decide what the paper covers and how it covers it; becoming a more active player and less an observer; lobbying for change on the news pages; finding sources whose voices are often unheard; and, above all, dramatically strengthening the bonds between newspaper and community. At its heart is the assumption that a newspaper should act as a catalyst for change.

Newspapers such as the Wichita Eagle and Charlotte Observer are among those that have refocused their political coverage on the concerns of ordinary people rather than those of politicians, handlers and spinmeisters.

Some papers, including the Dayton Daily News and Minneapolis' Star Tribune, have sponsored neighborhood roundtables in readers' homes. The Huntington Herald-Dispatch in West Virginia, the Boulder Daily Camera in Colorado and the Daily Oklahoman have held town meetings or convened community discussions designed to solve stubborn social problems. The Wisconsin State Journal established a panel of community leaders to give feedback before stories were published.

One obstacle to grasping public journalism is the lack of an easy-to-understand user's manual. It's a movement fond of jargon that newspaper people traditionally scorn: connectivity, capacity building, values clarification. And the phenomenon comes in a wide variety of flavors. What's considered public journalism at the Wichita Eagle may be entirely different than what's happening at the Boston Globe or the Virginian Pilot & Ledger-Star in Norfolk – yet still part of the same movement.

"The most important thing we can say about public journalism is we're still inventing it," says Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. "There aren't any experts, really. We are making it up as we go along."

To devotees of traditional journalism, the movement causes discomfort – and skepticism. These "agnostics" remain outside of Merritt's and Rosen's tent in protest. Isn't public journalism, they ask, what first-rate newspapers have been doing all along? Is today's version just a market-driven gimmick to boost circulation?

If readers are dictating what a paper should write, aren't journalists abrogating their responsibility? Shouldn't reporters be community chroniclers rather than boosters?

"My problem is that we're running around saying, 'Eureka, we've found it,' " says Eugene L. Roberts Jr., managing editor of the New York Times. "I'm not sure we ever lost it."

Adds Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post: "No matter how strongly I feel about something that's going on out there, my job is not to try to influence the outcome. I just don't want to cross that line, no matter how well-meaning the reasoning might be for crossing it."

Despite the detractors, public journalism is gaining support among those eager to try unconventional approaches. "I think the movement is one of the most significant in American journalism in a long time," says Marvin Kalb, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "This is not a flash in the pan phenomenon. It's something that seems to be digging deeper roots into American journalism and ought to be examined very carefully."

The public journalism movement began somewhat earlier in Georgia (see "The Death of a Pioneer," page 35), but its first prominent manifestation was born out of frustration over the 1988 presidential campaign coverage. Many believed the media had been transfixed by negative campaign tactics, obsessed with horse race coverage and oblivious to issues that mattered to voters. "At the time of the '88 campaign, everyone felt they had been taken to the cleaners," says Kalb. "The people had become disconnected from the political process."

The Post's Downie thinks two other factors also have contributed to public journalism's growth spurt: a desire to boost circulation, and to win popularity for editors uncomfortable with criticism. "It appears that you are doing something good and then people will love you for it,'' says Downie. "I'm just not going to worry about being loved or not."

But Buzz Merritt, editor for 18 years of Knight-Ridder's Wichita Eagle, says he was most concerned about the disheartening political campaign of 1988. Barely half of the electorate voted; the last time that had happened was in 1924. But Merritt didn't blame the public; he blamed the media, with its preoccupation with charges and countercharges and poll results.

A week after the election, Merritt wrote a column. The gist was that there needed to be a new compact among politicians, journalists and voters. Since the politicians wouldn't change, Merritt concluded, it was up to the journalists. Two years later, Merritt devised a way to force the candidates to discuss issues before the 1990 vote.

"We did a number of things and in effect changed the campaign," Merritt recalls. "We abandoned neutrality in whether people should vote. We actively were getting people to register and urging them to vote" – through the news pages. (Other papers are making similar efforts. Oregonian Editor Sandra Mims Rowe has said, "I'd rather increase voter turnout 10 percent than win a Pulitzer.")

The Voter Project, which the Eagle carried out in partnership with KAKE-TV, the local ABC affiliate, conducted surveys and focus groups to find out what readers thought the crucial issues were. It then tried to keep the candidates focused on them, downplaying charge-countercharge campaign rhetoric.

On six Sundays before election day, the paper gave in-depth treatment to the issues chosen by readers and outlined the candidates' positions on them. The paper produced reader-friendly voter guides and distributed them to subscribers and non-subscribers alike.

"It took a while to re-educate ourselves to become aggressive about issues," wrote then-Managing Editor Steve Smith, who coordinated the project. "We had become transcribers to political campaigns – getting A's statement and B's response and so forth. We had to train ourselves to be a little nasty" in forcing candidates to answer specific questions about real issues.

In the summer of 1992, the concept was expanded to the People Project: Solving It Ourselves, an undertaking which sought solutions to government gridlock, family stress, crime and poor education.

The challenge was also to get beyond mere consciousness-raising. Too often news operations focus attention on one problem, then move onto the next, leaving the follow-up to government officials and editorial writers. Public journalists, say movement mainstays Merritt and Rosen, must be willing to stay in the fray and act as facilitators and referees, although not necessarily as partisans.

In the People Project, the Eagle teamed up with KSNW-TV and KNSS radio. It hired researchers from Wichita State University to conduct in-depth interviews with 192 residents. Others were invited to telephone, fax or write their ideas about what's wrong and how to fix it. "There were hundreds of voices in the People Project (as it ran in the paper) and not a single expert or politician," says Merritt proudly.

The People Project not only focused on community ills but highlighted success stories and gave reams of information on how people could volunteer. "It was good journalism, comprehensive journalism, but it was much more," James K. Batten, chairman and CEO of Knight-Ridder and a champion of public journalism, has said. "In the copy, in the headlines, in the news pages as well as the editorial page, the Eagle pointed out the problems as the community was describing them and then insisted the community itself had to get busy to solve them."

While no one can definitely attribute it to the project, volunteerism in the schools rose by more than a third after the series, Merritt says. And a survey indicated reader satisfaction with the Eagle had jumped by more than 12 percent.

Kansas editor Merritt, 57, and New York professor Rosen, 38, are considered the fathers of the public journalism movement. They met in 1991 at a seminar for journalists in New York City sponsored by the Kettering Foundation, which had asked Merritt to speak about the Voter Project. "Jay and I began to talk and we realized that we were all sort of thinking along the same lines about what ought to happen in journalism," recalls Merritt.

Now Merritt, with 42 years in daily journalism, and Rosen, a reporter in Buffalo in the late 1970s, lecture together, appear individually at conferences and hold seminars. They recently conducted the third public journalism conference at the American Press Institute in suburban Washington, D.C., where the converted preached to each other. Merritt is taking a year off to write a book on public journalism. Rosen heads the nonprofit Project on Public Life and the Press at New York University, which he created in September 1993 with a $513,832 grant from the Knight Foundation to monitor experiments.

And many are experimenting. Currently, 171 news organizations are working with the Project on Public Life and 95 initiatives are underway, according to Lisa Austin, the project's research director. They range from splashy "let's fix our cities" projects to requiring staffers to talk to readers. In each case, public journalism experiments are tailored to the town.

At the Des Moines Register in 1993, reporters, photographers, artists and editors were assigned to hold open-ended conversations about community concerns with at least four area residents. The results were used to design an opinion poll about major local issues.

In other public journalism initiatives:

  • The Wisconsin State Journal in Madison and a local PBS station assembled citizens on "grand juries" and mock legislatures to deliberate a property tax plan, the national budget, gambling and health care reform.
  • After boxer Mike Tyson's rape conviction in 1992, the Indianapolis Star commissioned a poll on racial attitudes, then used the findings to shape stories for a week-long series. The local ABC affiliate ran stories on the same topics, with each medium promoting the other's stories.
  • The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, teamed up with a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored think tank to hold a summit on the state's economic problems. The paper conducted five town meetings prior to the summit to hear readers' views, promoted the meetings and helped pay for the summit. No one from the paper actually participated in the two-day event.

  • Although not officially part of Rosen's movement, Gannett newspapers such as the News Journal have been going in the same direction under the company's News 2000 program, launched in June 1991 for Gannett's 82 dailies. That summer each paper conducted surveys and held town meetings and focus groups, hearing from more than 75,000 residents in Gannett communities about what they liked and disliked about the papers.

    While public journalism means many things, one of the highest-profile examples was quite similar to the one sponsored by the Wichita Eagle. The Charlotte Observer, another Knight-Ridder paper, built on the Wichita experience and created an election coverage model in 1992 that many papers are copying.

    Like the Eagle, the Observer abandoned horse race election coverage, concentrating instead on the issues that mattered most to voters. Not surprisingly, it found that residents were worried about the economy, crime and drugs, taxes, health care, education, the environment, and the disintegration of family and community life. Half of the 1,000 participants agreed to serve on a citizens' panel to keep the Observer on track.

    In January 1992, then-Editor Rich Oppel introduced the project on the front page. A week later, the paper ran an analysis of the agenda set by the voters.

    The paper asked candidates to take specific stands on each of the issues selected by readers. When Democratic U.S. Sen. Terry Sanford refused to explain his position on one issue, the paper printed white space under his picture. Sanford didn't let that happen again.

    The Observer staff was initially suspicious, says then-City Editor Rick Thames.

    Asking readers' questions at press conferences was especially awkward for reporters. "Other reporters would turn around and look at them like 'What are you doing?'..when they would say: 'Mary Smith of Matthews would like to ask you this question,' " Thames recalls.

    Observer reporters asked their own questions, too. But Thames, now an assistant managing editor, noted a qualitative difference. His reporter might ask a candidate about strategy. "The voter question would say: 'I work hard. I can't get loans. What are you going to do for people like me?' " says Thames. "A reporter wouldn't have asked that question."

    The Charlotte effort attracted the interest of a key player in another medium and had a broader impact as a result. This year National Public Radio teamed member stations with the Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News and Wichita Eagle to try new approaches to election coverage.

    NPR Editorial Director John Dinges says the stations are trying to merge traditional narrative with the voices of individual people so listeners can hear citizens thinking issues through.

    "I was very influenced by Charlotte," says Dinges, who's heading the effort. "I wanted to do what they were doing: to let people set the agenda for the election rather than let them be led around by candidates and their handlers."

    Since 1992, Dayton, Ohio, has been shaken by a series of murders by young people. In March, an 11-year-old shot his two sisters, 3 and 5, killing the younger one.

    The Cox-owned Dayton Daily News responded with an ambitious project on youth violence. "Kids in Chaos" was designed to solve the problem, with help from residents. The goal, wrote Editor Max Jennings in April, was to strengthen and support community efforts toward curbing the unprecedented violence and saving Dayton's kids.

    The project, run in conjunction with WHIO, the local CBS affiliate, began with more than 400 family roundtables where groups of six or more, lured by free pizza, discussed the problem. In May, the paper began showcasing weekly stories about successful community efforts to help kids. It also cosponsored a conference for 120 local experts dealing with youth violence. But the experts won't dominate the series the paper plans to run, says editor Marty Steffans, who intends to use young voices more than those of adults. "We want the effort to be extremely personal,...to really show how juvenile violence affects our lives and our future," Steffans has written.

    As an example of aiming for the personal, Steffans cited a piece about a straight-A student who was gang-raped. The 14-year-old girl and her mother each wrote about the rape without seeing what the other had written.

    This month, the paper plans to publish an eight-day series on youth violence that will rely heavily on information collected from teenagers and preteens. Included will be a resource guide with advice for worried parents.

    The effort might have stopped there. But not this time, Steffans vows. Tucked inside the series will be a 12-page tab designed to guide and provoke further discussion. If all goes according to plan, the tab will become the bible for some 25 town hall forums that the paper will sponsor with community groups. "If we pull it off, it will be the largest public policy discussion in our community since the Great Flood of 1913," she says.

    The paper is completely committed to the effort but Steffans says it knows when to drop out. "If you're doing a good public journalism project, you let the other organizations take the lead," she says. "If newspapers become overly involved in a project, chances are good that it will ultimately fail."

    Steffans says the paper can cooperate with the community and still maintain its watchdog role. For instance, the Daily News worked with the police on the project, she says. "But if the police do something wrong, we'll come back at them with guns blazing. They know that."

    While the Daily News used pizzas to bring people together to discuss youth violence, the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, bought them last year for groups willing to talk about Spokane's future. "We heard from hippies trapped in the '60s, people from zip codes that we never got mail from, elderly people living in the community for a very long time, 14-year-olds who really just wanted the pizza," says the paper's editor, Chris Peck.

    Staffers also padded their Rolodexes with new names and numbers for future stories.

    Peck is working on yet another way to practice public journalism: He's reinventing the editorial pages. This year, rather than filling the op-ed page with the George Wills and Ellen Goodmans, he opened it up to the public. Peck eliminated the position of editorial page editor. Now, two "interactive editors" help readers get their opinions in shape for publication.

    "It brings a whole different voice into a very stilted part of the paper," says Peck. "What I hope we can do is develop a model for recasting the opinion page as the laboratory of public journalism."

    Turning over the editorial page to the community may be new (although columns by non-journalists are increasingly prevalent on the nation's op-ed pages). But are focus groups, surveys and asking community residents what they care about revolutionary techniques?

    "I mean, great God, this is radical?" asks Howard Schneider, a Newsday managing editor. "It's the most traditional thing that any newspaper worth anything has always done. Good newspapers go out to the community.... This is not a radical new notion that you also report on what the public cares about."

    Adds the Post's Len Downie, "I hope I've been practicing public journalism for the 30 years I've been in the business." While Downie applauds using focus groups and surveys, he is adamantly opposed to any kind of public participation by journalists.

    Downie doesn't vote, rarely reads editorial pages and says he tries not to form opinions on matters covered by the Post. Even with his city in deep trouble, he says his job is to do nothing except tell readers what is happening.

    "We've got a terrible fiscal problem in the District and we cover the hell out of it," he says. "But we don't want our coverage to tell people how they should deal with it. That's up to the voters and the Congress and the city council and the mayor."

    The Times' Gene Roberts, who's also wary of the movement, may in a sense have been a pioneer public journalist. That makes him wonder if the movement isn't using smoke and mirrors to hype what's been going on for decades.

    In the mid-1950s, Roberts was a reporter for the Goldsboro News-Argus in North Carolina. The paper recognized that farmers were too dependent on tobacco and needed to find other ways to make a living. Week after week, Roberts found and wrote about farmers who were making it without relying on tobacco.

    Such success stories are now cited by public journalists as important ways for newspapers to "connect" with the community. "I thought that was a legitimate role for a newspaper and still think that way," says Roberts, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and now on leave from the University of Maryland College of Journalism. "But we were careful not to get in or usurp the political process."

    Skeptics worry that public journalists will get too deeply involved in that process to remain balanced in their reporting. Newsday's Schneider believes that once a newspaper begins to lead the parade rather than cover it, its credibility is in danger. In his view, newspapers should spotlight a problem, solicit reader feedback and aggressively follow the story until it's resolved.

    Marvin Kalb has similar concerns. "A journalist who becomes an actor, in my view, is overstepping the bounds of his traditional responsibility," he says. "When the journalist literally organizes the change and then covers it, I'm uncertain about such traditional qualities as detachment, objectivity, toughness... The whole point of American journalism has always been detachment from authority so that critical analysis is possible."

    What happened at Scripps Howard's Bremerton Sun in Washington would certainly give the critics pause. In October 1991, angry citizens fought off an effort by developers to buy 600 acres of forest. They wanted the county commission to buy the land, but it didn't have the money.

    Mike Phillips, editor of the 40,000-circulation paper, did what editors do: He wrote an editorial saying that if preservation were important, the money had to be found. The day it appeared, he received numerous calls from residents asking him to do something. Along with a local Realtor and banker, Phillips persuaded Kitsap County commissioners to sponsor a meeting. Afterward, with the Sun driving the effort, a citizen education organization was formed to figure out how to save the open space.

    The Sun called for volunteers and arranged for training so they could host meetings to decide which parcels of land should be preserved. In all, 47 meetings were held and 1,500 people participated. "The Sun provided background and other workshop materials, published the citizen plan in a 24-page special section and conducted two telephone polls," according to a summary by the Project on Public Life and the Press.

    County commissioners responded. They put a $70 million bond issue on the ballot in September 1992. It failed, but the citizen's group began a nonprofit advocacy organization that tries to keep open space issues on the public agenda. Phillips is no longer involved.

    As the process unfolded, a Sun reporter had to cover a campaign sponsored by her own paper. Phillips says the reporter didn't have trouble writing about her boss and that he encouraged stories about opposition to the plan. (The reporter, Julie McCormick, declines to discuss the campaign.) According to the summary of the project, Phillips concedes that he, the banker and the real estate agent openly used their power to pressure the county commission into taking action.

    "I worried that we were going too far," Phillips says. "So did my staff... But they realize we are trying very hard here to walk the line and stay on the right side of it. But we are willing to walk the line."

    To some, such an approach seems perilously close to the bad old days, when powerful figures like William Randolph Hearst used their newspapers to promote pet causes and candidates.

    "I know newspapers will tell you they are only going out to develop a civic culture, to get people involved," says Newsday's Schneider. "But inevitably once a newspaper gets identified as a particular advocate for a position, the dangers are self-evident. Once you lose your credibility and your ability to speak with authoritativeness, you're losing everything."

    Critics, too, are wary of substituting the judgments of community leaders for those of editors. In making editorial decisions based on referenda, newspapers are merely feeding readers what they want to read and not necessarily what they need to know. John Bare, writing in the Media Studies Journal, noted that courageous editors are often lonely voices on sensitive issues like sexual mores or race.

    "Two decades ago, outspoken newspaper editors in the South who denounced Jim Crow and endorsed civil rights were hated in their communities," wrote Bare, a doctoral student in journalism at the University of North Carolina. "Speaking out against racism was a noble but dangerous tactic, yet the progressive writings of these editors eventually helped bring about change. If those editors had established their news agenda by survey research, however, they certainly would have found that citizens wanted something else."

    Newsroom resistance can slow down the cause of public journalism, as it did at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In 1991 the paper hired syndicated columnist Neal Peirce and a team of urban affairs experts to draft a plan for the city's future. "Response was dismal in the newsroom where staffers believed they could have produced a report as good as Peirce's, given similar resources," according to a summary of the project.

    Young reporters tend to be the least receptive, says Merritt. Many would rather be saying "gotcha" to a crooked mayor than helping to forge a consensus. "Generally speaking, the more veteran people understand it," says Merritt. "The older people know what we are doing now is not working."

    A positive public journalism experience often overcomes resistance and erases doubts, say devotees. That's what happened in Bremerton, according to Phillips; reporters found it was more fun dealing with "real" people than bureaucrats. But the concept can be frightening: "I envisioned having deep, meaningful conversations and nothing available for tomorrow's paper," says Steve Brook, news editor of the State in Columbia, South Carolina.

    Whether public journalism will be successful – and radically change journalism – is tough to measure.

    "In the short term, we're not going to solve all these problems," Merritt says. "This has to do with the long term. The way we do business can be changed if enough people understand public journalism.

    "There must," he adds, "be a purpose in what they do beyond telling the news."

    ###