The Death of a Pioneer
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
On November 15, 1990, 46-year-old Jack Swift, executive editor of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Georgia, walked into his den, sat down in a chair, put a handgun to his head and pulled the trigger. Some say public journalism played a role in Swift's suicide.
Swift, who spent about 15 years at the paper, was one of the pioneers of public journalism. Although initially reluctant to cross the line between observer and participant, he eventually became a champion of the idea that a newspaper should care deeply about its community and seek change where needed. That philosophy was behind the highly controversial seven-part series Swift published in the spring of 1988 titled: "Columbus Beyond 2000: Agenda for Progress."
The series, which took 13 months to prepare, examined how the people of Columbus viewed the future. At the time, the city of 180,000 residents was in deep trouble. Nearly 40 percent of the residents were functionally illiterate. The school system was largely segregated. Ignorance and poverty prevailed.
"We were in a situation where somebody had to do something," says Billy Winn, the senior reporter on the project. "If we waited around for the city government or the Chamber of Commerce, nothing might have happened forever. Although I come from a background of hard news, I must say that I admire Jack because they decided they were going to try and do something knowing they were going to take heat."
Initially, the paper conducted a $5,000 survey of 411 households, asking such questions as: Do you think blacks have the same chance to get ahead economically as whites in Columbus? Thinking about Columbus parks in general, would you say they are good, adequate or poor?
Winn, a Columbus native, wrote a more subjective questionnaire that he says was circulated to "everyone in the community, from black ministers to old girlfriends, to get a better feel for what the problems in the community were." The series then outlined what citizens were willing to do to correct them.
Beyond 2000 recommended a number of civic improvements, such as more money for schools, expanding the airport and harnessing hydroelectric power, and established an agenda for action. (An updated agenda still runs each month on the paper's editorial page and is still followed to a large extent by city officials, according to Winn.)
"So it was classic public service journalism, well-executed by all traditional measures," James K. Batten, chairman and CEO of Knight-Ridder, which owns the paper, said in a speech last fall. "But what was chilling is that nothing happened in response. Local government's needle did not move and it was as if the Ledger-Enquirer had never even published its series."
Then the 55,000-circulation Ledger-Enquirer, in the eyes of many critics, stepped over the line. Urged on by community leaders, Swift helped create a community-based task force on which he and Winn served. Winn says the task force threatened to disband if the paper didn't take a strong role, leaving Swift with a moral dilemma.
"The choice seemed to be lead or abandon Beyond 2000," Winn wrote about the project. "We decided to lead."
Rather than just cover town meetings, the paper sponsored them. Swift hosted backyard barbecues, bringing together blacks and whites in social settings – a first for some of the participants. "And as a result, small groups began meeting in homes to break down social and racial barriers and hundreds of citizens got involved in task forces to chart Columbus' future," said Batten.
While the task force did no out-and-out lobbying, it worked for change in an informal way. Members who might never have exchanged a word exchanged ideas, and buttonholed neighbors. "Lots of people for the first time – particularly women and blacks – found it was OK to talk," Winn says.
Not surprisingly, the all-consuming experiment in newspaper activism took a toll in the newsroom. Jealousy, resentment and frustration reigned. Staff members privately questioned Swift's judgment; some complained about the workload, some argued the paper had gone beyond the boundaries of traditional journalism. When Knight-Ridder took an attitude survey in the summer of 1990, Swift was the focus of staff animosity and unhappiness.
Beyond 2000 might have fared better if Swift had talked more. While he was impressing people like Batten with this new kind of journalism, he ignored his staff. "Jack was one of the world's worst communicators...," says Winn. "A significant portion of the so-called difficulties with the staff had to do with Jack's inability to articulate what he was doing."
That fall Jack Swift took his life. "His death was related to this," says Winn, now the paper's editorial page editor. "The attitude survey was a very negative review of Jack. I certainly think that preyed on Jack's mind. But, of course, he had personal problems as well."
Another victim was the Beyond 2000 task force. After Swift died, the paper stopped sponsoring town hall discussions. Public journalism also lost a proponent.
"His death disturbed a lot of people and kind of left a shadow over the idea," says Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University and a public journalism advocate. "Jack was an independent-minded person who was willing to take risks... It's hard to believe that somebody decides to take their life over an experiment that
didn't work. To say public journalism killed Jack Swift is ludicrous. But he was not around to tell the story."
Winn says the project had enormous support and accomplished a great deal. "It was exactly the right thing to do at the right time," he says. "We have $171 million in civic improvements underway." Even today, when he gives speeches in Columbus, people still ask when the Ledger-Enquirer plans to revive Beyond 2000.
"If I personally had to do it again," says Winn, "I certainly would have no reporters have anything to do with the task force." But he still would cross the line to activism. He believes that if you care about your community, as he does, it's impossible to stand by passively reporting its deterioration and do nothing.
"I maintain that anyone who cared about the community would have had a difficult time deciding to do otherwise... If you didn't do something, people were actually going to suffer," he says. "It was that clear-cut."