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American Journalism Review
Doctor, Doctor Give Me the News  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   April/May 2004

Doctor, Doctor Give Me the News   

Though they call their program Dr. Risk, some California journalists think their plan to bring readers’ voices into news decisions is anything but chancy.

By Judson Berger
Judson Berger is a former AJR editorial assistant.     

The Sacramento Bee may have the remedy for a troubled reader/journalist relationship. They call it Dr. Risk.

The Bee's ever-changing media consultant from the street, Dr. Risk is one week a scientist, the next an entrepreneur, the next a public relations representative, the next a school teacher, the next a retiree who appears a skosh inebriated. All are welcome.

The program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in January, invites a Sacramento-area resident each week to offer counsel at page-one story conferences. The result, says Morton Saltzman, deputy managing editor, is that readers disgruntled over assumed biases and seemingly arbitrary front-page choices leave the Bee with a different perspective, and journalists leave the conference room knowing some concerns of those they write for. Ideally, anyway.

"It's really interesting to see that sometimes the journalists and the readers are on two different planets," Saltzman says. For the 4 p.m. half-hour meetings every weekday, editors brief Dr. Risk--and that is the moniker applied, not Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so, but Dr. Risk--about the next day's budget and ask him or her to gauge which six stories should take priority. The "price of admission," says Saltzman, is explaining their decisions. Though the editors have final say, the staff doesn't patronize the guest--they really pay attention. After all, Dr. Risk is so-named because the Bee wants these media medics to take risks, and challenge the newsroom to do the same.

"They like to nitpick and lay out their complaints," says News Editor Linda Gonzales, "but that's all part of the bargain." She says the Dr. Risks, who come out of curiosity and occasionally dissatisfaction, can be shy at first but soon they're "in there throwing elbows with everybody else."

With little in the way of a screening process (the Bee has only "dis-invited" one person), the program feeds off a steady supply of participants. Mentions of Dr. Risk in the Bee generate most of the community interest.

The first Dr. Risk after September 11 wanted more stories about the attacks. The next Dr. Risk wanted to know more about Afghanistan's relationships with its neighboring countries. Responding, the Bee ran a graphic on it.

In late January, David De Luz, 34, a public affairs consultant and president of the local branch of the NAACP, became Dr. Risk. He pushed for persistent coverage of Bush's backpedaling on the weapons of mass destruction claim and coverage of downtown development, state government and the controversial impending execution of a California murderer.

Associate Justice Fred Morrison, 62, of the California Court of Appeal, 3rd District, was Dr. Risk two weeks before De Luz. He pushed for coverage of the war in Iraq and legal issues he thought deserved broader attention. "I think [the Bee is] sincere," he says. "They want to hear from the outside."

Ana Divac, 37, wife of Sacramento Kings Vlade Divac, urged coverage of the heat wave in France and Arnold Schwarzenegger's bid for governor when she participated in August. "As a Dr. Risk, we can give input about what the regular reader is interested in," she says.

The Bee is not the only paper to try this. The Detroit Free Press has had an open invitation to the public since the early '90s. And Tacoma, Washington's News Tribune and Portland, Maine's Press Herald also have brought readers in.

Gregory Favre, the Bee's former executive editor who now works at the Poynter Institute, initiated Dr. Risk. "My feeling was that if a newspaper is going to be as transparent as it can with its readers, then we have nothing to lose by bringing readers in," he says. Favre calls the "docs" who may pass through the Bee the paper's "evangelists," disseminating to Sacramento gospel of the paper's evenhanded approach.

Tony Marcano, the Bee's ombudsman, says the program seemed superficial to him when he arrived at the Bee last June. "It kind of struck me as kind of a public relations ploy...but it wasn't," he says. Dr. Risk won him over. In a December 14 column, Marcano lauded the program: "I'm convinced," he wrote, "that it should be replicated at media outlets everywhere."

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