AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 2000

Reader Friendly   

Their futures uncertain, newspapers are undergoing a profound change in the way they carry out their missions.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Related reading:
   » Forces for Change

THE AFTERNOON BUDGET MEETING at the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia, limps into its 96th minute, and a giddy degeneration is setting in.
What shoves people over the edge--in fact, gives several editors a providential cover to bolt from the room--is a proposed story on an "indoor track meet" that, for reasons the sports department cannot explain, is being held outside. "That's farcical," someone shouts, and soon everybody is piling on, and the hapless sports editor is backpedaling. Even top editor Will Corbin joins in, yukking about "the utter dopiness of having indoor track meets outdoors."
So maybe 96 minutes is too long to coop people up even here in Newport News, where meetings tend to run for a while and issues get fully vetted.
But extended talk is definitely in vogue at newsrooms today, in Newport News and across the land. Already this day, the Daily Press editors have devoted the first 10 minutes to a single reader's complaint about a complex graphic. They have debated whether it is fair, in a story about a killing at a local bar, to mention the last shooting at the same saloon, which happened nine years ago. They have waged a testy discussion over how to handle a story suggesting that AIDS can be spread through oral sex. And they have debated to death, pretty much literally, the question of whether to publish a business item with undeniable buzz: the names, as compiled by a private vendor, of more than 500 young local businesspeople who own million-dollar companies.
The Daily Press is a newsroom in transition in an industry in trepidation, and it reflects an emerging fact of newspaper life: Over the past decade or so, the culture of newsrooms has fundamentally changed.
The heightened dialogue, an expression of a vastly stepped-up sensitivity to reader tastes and concerns, is one big indicator among many observed by AJR during a cross-country tour of newsrooms.
Our goal was to examine how various "reform" initiatives are affecting the everyday life of ground-level reporters and editors. From civic journalism to New Directions for News, from credibility reforms to the Committee of Concerned Journalists, a host of foundations, trade groups and other forces has been pouring tens of millions of dollars into attempts to remodel how journalists think and act.
It is one thing for editors, publishers and academics to preach to one another. The more vital question is: How much, if any, of this effort is penetrating day-to-day newsroom life?
My answer, based on recent reporting visits to five newsrooms and trips to dozens of others over the past few years is: more than you might think.
Though direct cause-and-effect is obviously elusive, it is immediately clear in Newport News, Virginia, and Sarasota, Florida, in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Bangor, Maine, in Orange County, California, that these are not your old city editor's newsrooms. In that bygone era, newsrooms and news people were autocratic, aloof and aggressive. They published first and asked questions later. They brazenly built fences between themselves and their sources and audiences. They guarded an independence bordering on isolation, not only from the outside world but even from other divisions of their own papers. They strutted and preened in the security of reader dependency.
No more.
A new newsroom culture is settling in. The driving force, more powerful than anything else, seems simple: Newspapers fear for their survival. But the so-called reform efforts matter, too. Day after day in my visits to newsrooms, I saw the footprints of public journalism. I heard regular reporters, copy editors and photographers echo language straight from the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Journalism Credibility Project. In mundane discussions around numerous city desks, I felt the reverberation of New Directions for News seminars on changing demographics or Committee of Concerned Journalists manifestos about fairness.
The new newsroom culture grows out of all these forces, and undoubtedly others. But it is as noticeable as the omnipresent new pagination systems or the fast-growing online enclaves inside more and more newsrooms.
In the early 1990s, a wave of structural change swept through newsrooms. Papers flattened management, knocked down turf walls, formed teams and redefined titles. Naturally, not everything took; "we abandoned color-coded pods," one editor told me derisively. But changing the structure was just Round One. It set a foundation for a much more significant Round Two: truly transforming the culture by changing how journalists think. What are the characteristics of the emerging culture? Readers have become the newsroom's invisible giants, catered to on an unprecedented scale, elevated to the status of almost equal partner in decision making.
Papers tend, more often than before, to err on the side of caution rather than aggressiveness in rejecting stories for reasons of taste, compassion or community sensitivity. When they do publish something divisive, they are much more likely to explain themselves in print.
They promote cooperation with everyone from the community down the street to the advertising department down the hall.
They court audiences with a gusto ranging from simple courtesy (so often lacking in the old newsroom) to potential pandering. They operate through consensus and group decision making rather than top-down hierarchy.
They talk, talk, talk about practically everything and then explain, explain, explain, in an increasingly interactive environment where the readers can talk back--and do.

THESE ARE GENERALITIES subject to many qualifications and exceptions. They may not apply everywhere, particularly in the largest newsrooms. But overall, they seem on their way to defining a new culture. I encountered it in action again and again.
At the Orange County Register, editors spent the good part of a news cycle pondering whether to publish a photo taken by a high school student. The student shot it inside school where a controversial gay and lesbian club was meeting as protesters milled outside. Because professional photographers weren't allowed inside, the student's photo was the only one available. But the student feared he would be suspended if his name was associated with the picture. He asked that the paper run it without identifying him.
That, however, would have violated the paper's guideline against using anonymous material. What to do?
After prolonged discussion, editors concluded the photo was not important enough to violate the guideline. It didn't run. In Sarasota, editors debated their way to a different decision about a school-related controversy. When a Michigan first grader killed a 6-year-old classmate back in February, many editors at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune favored downplaying the story. It wasn't local. It was an aberration. Giving it heavy play seemed sensationalistic.
But Executive Editor Janet Weaver ruled otherwise. She sided with major front-page display. Then she wrote a Sunday column explaining herself to her readers.
"I quit thinking like an editor and start feeling like a mother with two little children of my own," Weaver wrote. "And the mother says, yes, put this story on the front page and play it big.... The loss of this child--these children, really, both victim and shooter--diminishes us all.... It is my job as a journalist to help us understand what is going on with gun violence and children, to help us to understand it with our minds and with our hearts."
The feelings of readers never leave the forefront in Sarasota, where Weaver's predecessor, current Publisher Diane McFarlin, launched a project requiring every newsroom staffer to spend a week as reader advocate. The advocate takes from 30 to 50 calls a day, plus a dozen or so e-mail messages, with complaints and comments on everything from content to missed delivery.
Most staff members I talked to approached the assignment with the enthusiasm of a comrade marching off to re-education camp. But all admitted the experience affected them.
Art and architecture critic Joan Altabe, for example, found it a bracing antidote to a journalist's jaundice. "You go to bed at night and start to worry and think, îI've got to do this right, because the hordes are out there watching,' " she says. "And I know who they are now." Getting closer to the hordes has top priority in many places these days, as Bangor Daily News Executive Editor Mark Woodward explained one afternoon while we drove to his third community-oriented meeting of the day.
Like many, Woodward sees reconnecting with community as a life-or-death matter.
"For their own survival," he says, "newspapers have had to become sensitive to what their communities want them to do. They are businesses which happen to be newspapers. And buying them is not automatic."
Bob Evans, a senior editor in Newport News, put the motivating force for listening to readers more personally. "It is the realization that real people hate us," Evans says, "and we can't stand to be hated."

MY NEWSROOM PILGRIMAGE begins on an icy January morning in Newport News, where Editor Will Corbin proves a restless, high-voltage evangelist for change.
Like almost all top editors I encountered, Corbin is a convert to the catchphrases of today's reform movement: connection, credibility, convergence, diversity. But here they are priorities, not abstractions. Here change doesn't trickle down from the top. It gushes.
The Daily Press is one of eight volunteers in ASNE's $1.2 million project to improve credibility. The 95,000-circulation Tribune Co.-owned paper has, among other things, published a yearlong, 13-part series on local neighborhoods, hosted community forums on diverse topics and created a Feedback column for unfettered reader commentary about the paper. It even held editorial board meetings in local restaurants and invited readers to join.
In all this, Corbin serves as point man. He prowls the newsroom, spreading the gospel. He drums his fingers nervously during budget meetings, leaping in impulsively with provocative comments and questions. Repeatedly, rank-and-file staffers cite his forcefulness in making innovation, ethics and community consciousness everyday considerations.
Corbin expresses his goal as "changing the way we think, the way we look at basic journalistic values."
It is Corbin who raises questions about the AIDS/oral sex story. "This runs a very high risk of offending massive numbers of readers. That means it needs to be handled with great care," he says, and then sits back as debate erupts. "A lot of people will complain that we have a story even acknowledging that gay people exist," one editor flares. "Well, fuck them."
A younger staff member tactfully raises the age issue in lobbying for the story. "This is an issue that has a significant effect on my generation."
Most editors favor publishing the story. Corbin agrees, though emphasizing that the headline shouldn't be "too sensational." The article appears the next day at the bottom of page A9, under a head reading, "Dangers of contracting AIDS from oral sex."
It is also Corbin who raises ethical questions about a story on a valve problem at a local nuclear power plant. Officials say the problem is small, but the journalists are skeptical. "What's the worst that could happen?" someone asks. "If we're glowing, they're lying," an editor responds. Someone else mentions a problem at the plant several years ago. "Is it fair to dredge up an accident from 15 years ago?" Corbin prods.
The story runs below the fold on the local front. It reports that no radioactive material was released. It doesn't mention the old accident.
What strikes me is not that the editors discuss such issues. This kind of debate has gone on in newsrooms forever. Instead, I am struck by how many such discussions occur here, by the generous time given to them, by the repeated use of words like fairness and ethics, by how often the readers are invoked and by how often the decision is not to publish. Still to come, during this news cycle, are debates about fairness issues in the bar shooting story and a rape incident.
On top of all that, editors are engaged in a running battle over printing the names of the local young entrepreneurs owning million-dollar companies.
The story is this: A national business organization wants to start a local chapter and has identified 555 area residents who meet its membership requirements. They must be under 45 and own firms with at least a million dollars in annual sales and at least 10 employees.
Business reporter Peter Dujardin is preparing a story on the new chapter, plus a box naming the 555 young executives. But Corbin raises doubts. "Should we print this?" he asks. "Sure, people are going to read the shit out of it.... But what are my good reasons for doing this? How would I feel if I were on the list?"
Debate spills over from the morning news meeting into the next day. Momentum soon shifts against publishing the list. Felicia Mason, a columnist who was serving as acting business editor, says these debates are common. "The journalists' view is one thing, and then there are the regular people," Mason says. "How is this going to play at the breakfast table?"
The prevailing view is that printing the names would put an embarrassing spotlight on the young executives for no legitimate news purpose. Even reporter Dujardin agrees. "Normally I would want to go ahead and print," he explains. "But in this case, I don't think we should. These people would be blindsided by it. I just think we would really tick off a lot of people in the group."
Ultimately, the list does not run.
"Ethics is a pretty big thing around here," Dujardin concludes. "Will is always talking about stuff like this."
Can all this considerateness make the paper too soft?
Sure, Corbin acknowledges. But he can cite his own examples of edgy journalism that did make the paper. For example, the Daily Press ran a mammoth eight-day series, "Two lives. One bullet. No justice," about a teenager's dubious conviction and imprisonment for a shooting. A blunt editorial proclaimed, "He is behind bars now because his lawyer was incompetent, possibly even impaired by substance abuse known to the courts, and the judge was unconcerned about justice.... He should not be in prison. Free Ricky."
Bob Evans is the Daily Press "newsgathering editor," one of six senior deputies to Corbin. Evans tends to play the brash counterpoint when Corbin gets serious. In one meeting, the two spar like dueling cats, to the point that Corbin eventually flashes his middle finger in Evans' direction.
It is all part, it appears, of a good cop, bad cop routine that, even if obvious, spurs debate.
Evans projects an interesting balance. He studied ethics and philosophy at William and Mary, but he bristles with journalistic impatience. He buys into the need for change and connection but scoffs at jargon like "civic mapping" and "community conversations."
He points to an unread volume sitting on his desk. It is a book called "Tapping Civic Life," a publication related to public journalism. "This may be bullshit personified for all I know," Evans says. But at the same time he embraces the need for innovation, respecting readers and reconnecting with the community. He thinks it is just solid journalism.
Some so-called reforms, in Evans' view, "seem to me like a new way for developing a system for talking to the people next door. I'm not sure why we stopped talking to our neighbors and PTA members anyway. As a reporter and as an editor, I always tried to make sure that I kept in touch with real people and wrote about real people. You don't need a îcommunity conversation' to do that."
In the newsroom, the rank-and-file watch their leaders and react. Most say they cannot define civic journalism or don't know every aspect of the credibility initiative. But they acknowledge the impact.
Is there palpable change? "The answer for me is îyes,' " says Jesse Todd, a 24-year Daily Press veteran who heads a team of state and regional reporters. "Certainly the discussions that have been going on by Will and others at our news meetings is an obvious example."
Years ago, when he was a city editor, Todd recalls, "My function was to just put it in the paper. There was occasional concern about a libel suit, but if you didn't think that was going to happen, you put it in. But there are a lot of ways you can damage yourself. Once you make an enemy or hurt a person, it's hard to get them back. And it is very easy to hurt people in this business.
"As a matter of survival--not to mention the fact that it is right--you want to pay more attention to those things these days."

DEADLINE LOOMS AT the Orange County Register, and editors have just decided that a 25-inch article must be reworked into separate, smaller pieces. Now somebody has to tell the reporter. An editor reluctantly gets the reporter on the phone. "You're not going to believe this," the editor stammers.
"Just tell him you're the readers' representative," Executive Editor Ken Brusic advises jokingly. "Yeah," another editor chimes in. "Tell him the Big People have spoken."
In Orange County, as in Newport News and elsewhere, readers are the Big People--so big that editors can freely blame them for unpopular decisions.
The 367,000-circulation Register, owned by Freedom Communications Inc., is a grandparent of newspaper change. More than a decade ago, under Editor N. Christian Anderson III, reforms rocked the place like the earthquake whose cracks still show in the stairwells. Managers heralded a "newsroom without walls," section editors became topic editors, teams were introduced, beats were revolutionized. Now Anderson is publisher, and the rumble rolls on. Structural change continues (the newsroom is now reorganizing into "neighborhoods" of related writers, editors, artists, designers and copy editors), but today's stress is on deeper cultural change. The mantra is serving readers by building community. The "real big-picture issue," according to Anderson, is the reader's vital question, "Does this newspaper reflect my life and the way I live it?"
Anderson in April finished a year as president of ASNE, where he broadcast his reform agenda nationwide. But he responds cautiously when asked how much impact the latest round has had on working reporters and editors.
"Not much--yet," he answers. "But I think over the course of time they will. You are talking about a fundamental change--I mean a very fundamental change--in a culture that is well established and being reinforced all the time. You are talking about a huge undertaking."
Executive Editor Brusic appreciates the challenge. "I'm not trying to îreform newspapers.' That is too much to embrace," he says. "I'm trying to provide useful information and knowledge to people in the community.... What we do is help give people a sense of belonging. If there is no community, there is no need for a newspaper."
Throughout the paper, signs of change abound.
Daily budget meetings take place as huddles in the middle of the newsroom. Reporters as well as editors attend. One day, the morning meeting opened with science writer Gary Robbins complimenting the way a story in that day's paper had emphasized its "effect on readers." Three other people agreed.
Another project involves sending reporters with laptops to "listening posts" outside the newsroom, places like churches, community centers, street festivals. The hope is to generate better stories by increasing contacts with readers in their everyday lives. The paper also hosts community conversations where the public comes to the paper and discusses local issues. It has a "people making a difference" beat.
Rebecca Allen, the Sunday/projects editor, coordinates a newsroom training course that tries to connect staff members with sources who are "real people" in the community. "You don't have to have a title to be quoted in this newspaper," she says.
Editor Tonnie Katz presides over the newsroom. "You can't change the culture by ordering it," Katz says. "You have to change the technology so people have the tools, the processes so they can use them, and the culture so people know what you want."
Not everyone buys into the changes. One complained about the "mumbo-jumbo management crap." Another worried that the pressure "to insert a quote from some average Joe" into every story leads to tokenism. Some find management heavy-handed in enforcing behavior among staffers; one manager's alleged quote that "we can make them stand on their heads if we want to" is not remembered affectionately.
But in reality, the Register has been in the change business so long that most resisters, for better or worse, seem to have left. Staff members acknowledge the power of the reform effort.
"I definitely think it has had an impact," says Michael Hewitt, a team leader. Hewitt, like others, points to the elaborate consideration of readers and consequences. "I see discussion going on at the news meetings now more than in the past. You have a good story in the classic sense, but the issue becomes, îIs it appropriate?' It even crops up in little things--a picture of a kid out riding a bicycle without a helmet. Fifteen years ago, we would have run the picture anyway. Now there is a lot of discussion. Part of the culture of this paper is to really take reader feedback to heart."
Interestingly, I run into a common phenomenon at the Register and many other papers. When I raise the issue of civic journalism, editors and reporters typically say they don't understand it or dismiss it outright--even at papers, like the Register, where civic-journalism-like projects flourish.
Ken Brusic, for example, tells me, "The problem I have with civic journalism is that it is almost like a formula. You have a formula and apply it and everything will be fine." But the Register conducts community forums, has revised its political coverage to better reflect the voters' agenda and has used a foundation grant for its ombudsman to conduct "civic conversations." It developed a "Discover Orange County" project, in which according to Editor Katz, "the goal was to build community."
Perhaps the resistance to the civic journalism label simply underlines how much some of these techniques have seeped into the newsroom groundwater.
What virtually no one at the Register disputes is that the place is a hotbed of change, in part because of the culture created by its leaders, in part because of the near-universal fear of the future.
Says Tonnie Katz, the editor: "This is really a survival and growth issue."
Says Gary Robbins, the science writer: "Reporters are finally realizing that the nature of their jobs must change, or else they are not going to have jobs. I don't work for Ken Brusic. I work for the 300,000-odd people who are buying the newspaper."

ONE OF THE FAVORITE scenes during my cross-country tour unfolds shortly after I arrive in Sarasota. I am chatting with Herald-Tribune Managing Editor Rosemary Armao when a reporter rushes up, breathless, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, bubbling over with a late tip. Someone has told him that one city commissioner wants another commissioner questioned under oath about critical comments she has made. Armao pumps up the reporter even higher, and he surges off to pin down the story, which he does in time for the next day's paper.
Armao, a firebrand imported from the Baltimore Sun to help energize the place, grins with the knowledge that nothing juices a newsroom like the vapor trail of a hot story.
Editors can talk all they want about reform, but the test of success is what gets published. More and more reporting seems to be done by phone or e-mail these days--efficient maybe, but disturbingly passive--so it is heartening to see a reporter burst into the room with a flash from the field.
In some ways, the New York Times Co.-owned Herald-Tribune seems normal. As the reporter and Armao discuss the city council story, a going-away party for a staff member is taking place in the newsroom's opposite corner, complete with the requisite cake, gag gifts and mock-up front page. Walking toward the party, I overhear a conversation that must have taken place a million times in a million newsrooms. "There's no 'n' in restaurateur," the business editor is informing a reporter, but then, in an editor's classic attempt to recoup, he adds, "But this is great stuff!"
Old ways still show here, but the big theme is new: the converging of broadcast, online and print into a modernistic multimedia newsroom. Just across from the metro editor is the staff of the 109,000-circulation Herald-Tribune's Web site (www.newscoast.com) and just beyond it is Six News Now, its 24-hour-a-day cable news channel.
City Editor Lou Ferrara spends increasing amounts of energy prodding reporters to break news all day long in all three media. The lesson hit home for him recently on his own commute when he found himself stuck behind an accident on one of the region's busiest roads. What today's consumers expect, he realized, was an immediate report on cable, real-time coverage online and a wrap-up story in the next day's paper.
Sometimes the new world can be confusing. I am in Florida on presidential primary day, for example. To my surprise, to the chagrin of several staff members and to the mild outrage of some readers, the next day's newspaper plays down the local voting. Page one offers only reefer boxes to stories inside.
What doesn't surprise me by now is that vigorous debate over the primary coverage dominates the next morning's news meeting. Armao takes responsibility for downplaying the primary, on the grounds that both presidential nominations have already been sewn up and it doesn't mean much. But she gamely encourages everyone's second-guessing. One reporter passionately observes that because the paper didn't print a county-by-county vote breakdown, she feels that her own vote was invisible. Armao goads the conversation even more by saying that the paper was tight and several other stories got short shrift, too. Somebody mentions an important international story that got truncated.
The Herald-Tribune, too, is a debater's paradise. More than that, it goes to great lengths to bring readers in on the exchange.
Armao and Executive Editor Janet Weaver alternate weekly columns about the paper. Sometimes they both write, and occasionally they disagree. They differed, for instance, on whether the paper should run the names and addresses of sexual offenders released into the community.
Weaver argued against it. She raised concern about the difficulty of ensuring that the names and addresses are accurate. More important, she argued, these are "people who have served their prescribed sentence," and publishing their addresses seemed like "singling them out for a public shaming."
"It smacks of using the newspaper as an instrument of punishment," Weaver wrote. "I believe that it starts to move us across a line, from being an independent press to serving as an extension of government."
Armao began her rebuttal, "I agree with everything Executive Editor Janet Weaver writes here. I just think she's wrong. "If a convicted sex offender moves in next door to me, I want to know about it," Armao countered. "Face it, news is often about people's private lives. If we kept everything out of the newspaper that could punish or embarrass someone, we'd save a lot on newsprint."
Such debates run constantly in the newsroom, like a low-grade fever. "The common thread," Weaver says, "is that we let readers in on it a lot more."
Weaver also has created a readers' advisory group (she solicited members in one of her weekly columns) and says she hears from members quite frequently, largely by e-mail.
But the paper's most dramatic move is enlisting all staff members to take turns as the reader advocate. It is the Herald-Tribune's contribution to the ASNE credibility experiments, and it began last year as a tool to help reduce errors. To a person, staffers told me it had made them more careful.
"There is much more agonizing now, and I think that is good," says art and architecture critic Joan Altabe. "You should agonize. We are much more conscious that every dinky little thing is paid attention to."
City Editor Ferrara, for instance, had just triple-checked a fact box for errors when I spoke to him, a preemptive strike against complaints. "With this system, somebody will call" if anything is wrong, he says.
But columnist Tom Lyons has mixed opinions. If the paper over-encourages readers, he worries, it can set off "a scavenger hunt for people who could find a comma out of place."
Or it can prompt overreactions.
"The worst polling technique in the world is to rely on the two people who happen to call you," Lyons says. "Most of the time management is very sane, but occasionally they get a wild hair about something."
Generally, people in the newsroom seem to respond a lot like Melissa Williams Robinson, a news assistant who had reader advocate duty the week I visited Sarasota.
"I said I'm going to put on my thick skin, because I know a lot of people will be telling me off and cussing me out," Robinson says. But she, like most other advocates, was struck, and touched, by how nice and positive most callers are.
For all her outreach to the community, Weaver, like so many others I encountered, shies away from labels like public journalism. Her reaction is especially intriguing, since she has worked directly for both Cole C. Campbell, former editor of Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (see "The End of the Line," page 44), and former Wichita Eagle Editor Buzz Merritt, two editors closely associated with newsroom change and the civic journalism movement.
Weaver says she tries to think in both traditional and contemporary terms but to avoid labels, which "people are immediately suspicious of."
"I have left the cult of public journalism," she says. "I think the term has become polluted. But we do use some of the tools."

YOU EXPECT TO FIND ferment in Sarasota and Newport News, both participants in the ASNE credibility project, and in Orange County, a center of innovation for a decade. I visited those papers deliberately, knowing changes were underway. But what about elsewhere? What about regular newspapers in regular places? What could be more regular than Lincoln, Nebraska?
Here is a quintessential midsize, mid-American town of open spaces and broad boulevards, a region that calls itself the Heartland, a place where Lincoln Journal Star staff members get up from their desks two or three times a day and stroll down P Street, across the six lanes of 9th Street, past the Holiday Inn and Historic Haymarket to The Mill coffee shop, where you can fill your mug, slap a dollar down on the counter whether the cashier's there or not, amble out to the porch and bump into a couple of your sources enjoying the same sunny day.
The Journal Star is a paper populated by what Managing Editor Kathleen Rutledge calls "a lot of good, kind-hearted people from the Midwest," a newsroom where the sprawling open spaces outside are paralleled by an open-armed friendliness inside.
"We're a pretty good example" of a paper struggling with change, Editor David Stoeffler has messaged me before my arrival, "with pockets of reformers and pockets of resistance spread evenly throughout the newsroom. You have my blessings to talk to anyone.... I've done what I could here to encourage free exchange of views."
Stoeffler turns out to be a big believer in public journalism and in using marketing data to help improve the newspaper--two issues as controversial in his own newsroom as they are elsewhere. But he is a moderate voice, preferring to nurture change rather than order it, and he seems open indeed.
So open that his is the only newsroom I can remember where I find a copy of the newsroom budget posted on a bulletin board, alongside the most recent circulation reports (up 1,724 over last year) and the usual items about departing and arriving staff members.
So open that when he commissioned a readership study, Stoeffler turned the results over to reporter Joe Duggan, who wrote a "story" about it for the staff, headlined, "Who wants what and why we care."
What is going on in Lincoln is a modulated version of the same changes observable elsewhere, a newsroomwide stress on connection and community.
Five years ago, the newsroom endured what Sunday Editor Catharine Huddle calls "merger hell," a consolidation in which the morning Lincoln Star, owned by Lee Enterprises, swallowed up the family-owned afternoon Journal. Two years later, Stoeffler arrived as editor. Those two events set the stage for serious change.
Like many other papers, the 77,000-circulation Journal Star made modest structural adjustments, creating some teams, converting daily feature pages to themed sections and revising beats--for example by combining the city and county government beats to make room for a science and environment reporter.
But the bigger cultural changes have flowed from Stoeffler's drive for more connection with "real people."
Lincoln is Nebraska's capital, so state government coverage is a Journal Star centerpiece. Under Stoeffler, it has moved from what he calls "a traditional cover-the-waterfront, paper-of-record approach" to "mixing that with making sure we find ways to make stories relevant to regular readers."
"We put a heavy value on getting stories that appeal to real people and on getting real people into stories," Stoeffler emphasizes. "From the research I have read, I think people are actually interested in government, but we have turned them off by the way we reported and wrote stories. They have to see how what government does affects them."
Public journalism plays a big role in Stoeffler's strategy. The paper has hosted town hall meetings, sent reporters knocking on doors canvassing the public's ideas for issues to cover, sponsored a yearlong literacy project, and teamed with state public television for a series on Hispanics in Nebraska. During last year's city election, Stoeffler presided over meetings in city council districts in which citizens were asked about their priorities, candidates were quizzed on those issues, and the paper focused its ongoing coverage on those areas.
Stoeffler wants "people thinking differently about the newspaper's role in the community." In particular, he is aiming to be "more solution-oriented...not just negative, negative, negative, pointing out all the problems and then being smug and letting other people solve them." Needless to say, this kind of role redefinition brings squirming from the troops.
Veteran reporter Art Hovey remembers a project on migrant workers that ended with a community meeting on improving their plight. "I got to feeling a little uncomfortable about whether the news media should be playing a role like that, affecting public opinion through means other than the editorial page," Hovey says.
Reporter Joe Duggan also worries about making too many decisions based on techniques like civic journalism and reader surveys. "I'm leaning toward believing we should have the confidence to assert what the agenda should be," Duggan says. "Otherwise, you end up with the coupon clippers deciding what the newspaper should be." But, in true Heartland style, this is more a continuing conversation than a ferocious debate, and the newsroom at large sits somewhere in the middle.
Jodi Rave, who covers Native American issues for the Journal Star and all Lee Enterprises papers, says she spends lots of time on community activities but doesn't feel pressure to practice any certain brand of public journalism.
Gordon Winters, who has spent nearly 30 years at the Lincoln papers, puts it this way: "I don't think it has come into the Journal Star as, 'OK, we're going to practice public journalism.' Various editors see different things in public journalism and say, 'We're going to try some of these things.' "
Does all the connecting with community make the paper more cautious?
Reporter Duggan sees "a bit of a mentality of, 'Let's be motivated by not pissing off people.' " But he also sees it "pretty evenly tempered by people here who don't think that way. So far it's pretty evenly balanced."
Stoeffler agrees. "The newspaper needs to be the community's candid friend," he says. "Your best friend is not the one who always tells you how beautiful you look. Your best friend is the one who points out you've got food dribbling down your mouth. I think the job of the newspaper is to both celebrate the rights and point out the wrongs."
One good test arose over, of all things, the mother-of-the-year story.
According to a tipster, the state's Mother of the Year 2000 was chosen despite nominating herself for the honor, winning by default because there were no other nominations, forging her sons' signatures on the nomination form, and having once sued three of her eight sons over the family business. The tip, it turned out, came from a man who wrote, "How do I know she is a fraud....because I am one of her sons."
Everyone agreed it was a hot one. But how should it be handled?
Debate opened with a long discussion at a morning news meeting and continued over several days. Was it a front-page sensation? An inside-the-paper update? A private squabble that should be ignored? One faction--led, interestingly enough, by copy editors--argued that it was a great read deserving front-page display. Another group, including Sunday Editor Huddle, opposed "humiliating this woman on page one." The reporter, Duggan, admitted misgivings about writing the story at all.
Ultimately, the story ran--balanced but unsparing--at the top of the local page.
The case featured protracted discussion; concern for compassion, news values and good storytelling; and a compromise outcome to publish but in a measured way.
To me it seemed representative of journalism not only in the Heartland but in many other places these days.

THE EXECUTIVE EDITOR OF of the Bangor Daily News is working himself into a lather as he pilots his silver Dodge Caravan through the fog along U.S. Highway 1A toward Ellsworth, Maine, where he's late for his third community event of the day, a meeting at the James Russell Wiggins Down East Family YMCA, for which he has just missed the turnoff.
Mark Woodward's day has begun with a breakfast sponsored by a local business school. He lunched with a community task force on safe schools, which he had instigated months ago after becoming alarmed about gunplay in the nation's schools. Now he is careening into the YMCA, where he has volunteered for a United Way committee considering grant requests.
It has been, he admits, "a community-intensive day," but so are most of them. The previous day, for example, a local seventh grader had questioned him about newspaper ethics while her mother videotaped the interview. "Part of my job," Woodward says stoutly, "is to be an extension of the newspaper."
Times are not easy in Maine, where reduced military investment and declines in the lumber industry contribute to sagging newspaper circulation. The Daily News, a fifth-generation, family-owned, 70,000-circulation enterprise, knows it is in a battle. "Not to paint too bleak a picture," Woodward says, "but we are trying to claw our way up in a region where people are leaving and growth is stagnant."
If Lincoln, Nebraska, is the Heartland, then Bangor, Maine, is the Edge, about as far north as you can go without bumping into Canada. As Tom McCord, the Daily News coastal editor, puts it, "There is a psychological apartness from much of the country here."
But even at the Edge, the watchwords are familiar: broad discussion, reconnecting with community, focus on credibility and service.
Maybe there is too much stress on community-boosting, some staffers worry. Environment reporter Susan Young says, "It's known that we should be cheerleading for the community, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But some reporters have concerns that there is too much cheerleading.... There is not a lot of effort made here to try to get reporters to be more aggressive."
Yet Young, like so many other ground-level journalists I have met, ultimately takes a moderate view based on the fear of extinction. "If people feel they have a relationship with the Bangor Daily News and we are serving needs no one else can, that is the way we are going to survive."
The paper has its cautious side. Staff members say it tends to go easier than it once might have on gore and profanity, to occasionally delay or tone down stories with high ruffle potential. "I think it has become a little more cautious," concludes copy desk chief Jim Emple.
With an investigator's pride and passion, crime and courts reporter Renee Ordway recalls learning that a new area official was being investigated in connection with a previous post. "Even the lawyer said we were safe--and our lawyer never says you are safe--so I was doing cartwheels," Ordway says. "But Mark said no. I was mad."
Mark Woodward remembers the case well. He was nagged by some problems with attribution, some concerns about litigiousness and a general feeling the story was premature. "I just couldn't run it and get up the next morning feeling like we had done the right thing." So the story held, although eventually the information came out in a court case. Still, caution doesn't win every time.
For example, the paper published an extraordinary package by reporter Ruth-Ellen Cohen and photographer Karen Pominville on compassion fatigue among animal shelter workers. Between "insensitive pet owners and never-ending animal euthanasia," it reported, humane society workers are "haunted by depression, fatigue and anger." A devastating spread of color photos showed the bodies of euthanized animals, a dog being injected with a fatal dose of anesthesia, and a cat's body being moved toward an incinerator.
What characterizes both the stories that run and those that don't are extended discussions and, often, explanations to readers.
"There is a whole lot of dialogue going on all the time," Ordway says. "As a reporter, I used to be more apt to want to run it because it was fun, it was juicy. Now I am more like, 'Why are we doing this? Is it just for gossip, or is there a real purpose to this?' "
The compassion fatigue package was accompanied by a front-page editor's note, warning of "graphic descriptions and images that may not be suitable for all readers. This material was included to fully tell an important story that is disturbing by its nature."
After the paper printed another unsettling picture, Woodward wrote an explanatory column. The excruciating color photo, run at the bottom of the local front, showed the aftermath of a fatal crash between a 14-year-old bicyclist and a dump truck. In the background are the truck and rescue workers hovering over the body (which cannot be seen). In the foreground are skid marks, two tennis shoes and the grotesquely smashed bike. Readers were apoplectic. Calling the decision to publish "inappropriate and heartless," one reader fumed, "You seem to have forgotten that there was a living, breathing human being with a family and loved ones who lost his life in that accident."
Woodward's column was equally heartfelt:
People who work at this newspaper coach Little League, sit beside loved ones in hospital beds.... Not one of them would find personal satisfaction in someone else's misery....Every editor here was moved by the photograph. They are parents with kids, who have bikes. It is a photo that wallops you, where it really hurts. Put it up on the refrigerator, said one editor. Let your children see it. Death is real. It's out there, even on hot summer days....Readers can't see the photographs we don't run. Pictures of piles of slaughtered Albanians...the murdered Columbine High School student dressed for graduation and lying in his coffin.... None of these photos ran in our paper. We said no. We do listen to our readers....Why run the photo last Saturday? It graphically reminded us of life's sharp edges.... Criticize us.... But our concern and compassion are constants. We have children and families. Those empty sneakers never will leave our thoughts.
One of the best metaphors for the changing newsroom sits on reporter Renee Ordway's desk. It is a Stalker radar gun, for which Woodward was willing to shell out some $1,000 as part of a series on speeding in local neighborhoods. As Ordway explains, reporters parked on city streets and in school zones, aimed the radar gun at traffic, and tallied the high rate of speeding. The paper ran notices asking readers to nominate sites to check. More than a hundred responded. Eventually, the police chief asked for additional officers to crack down on speeding.
Now the gun sits on Ordway's desk. Occasionally reporters will clock traffic in a new locale. Sometimes people just pick it up and point it around the newsroom.
Keeping a radar gun on a reporter's desk struck me as symbolic. In most newsrooms, news coverage and journalists' attitudes no longer run full speed ahead. Journalists haven't slammed on the brakes; they still run pretty much at the limit. But they feel less emboldened than they once did to jam the accelerator to the floor. Both their managers and readers wield strictly calibrated if imaginary radar guns, and ground-level reporters and editors are always in their sights.

THE NEWSROOM CULTURE may not have taken over, but it is taking hold.
All the machinery of change being unleashed by agents like ASNE, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Freedom Forum, New Directions for News and the Project for Excellence in Journalism has unquestionably seized the agenda among top editors. More important, it appears to me to be flowing rather briskly into the daily routines and operations at the front lines.
Most every matter is open for debate. Consideration for readers predominates, both before and after publication. Arrogance is down, though not gone. Caution often, but not always, prevails. At the ASNE convention in April, researcher Christine Urban reported on public response to the society's credibility project. It is so new that relatively few people have noticed so far, she said, but those who do notice the changes have "roundly applauded" them.
Then Urban told the assembled editors: "Whatever we tell each other is irrelevant. For any of the initiatives to make a difference, they have to show in the pages of the newspaper."
This point slams home to me. At times in my visits to newsrooms, I want to shout, "Stop talking so much about change and start working harder every day to make your papers compelling."
I sit in one news meeting where the energy level sinks so low that people at the edge of the room strain to hear what is being said. I sit in a meeting where editors take turns making excuses for why they don't have any good stories (people are off, there's hot stuff brewing for the weekend paper, blah, blah, blah) and everyone calmly leaves the room, content to produce still another torpid daily edition. I don't oppose connection and credibility, but I do find myself repeatedly wishing that some foundation or other was also pouring millions into a parallel campaign to make newspapers more interesting.
Likewise, while few will object to reaching out to readers and tempering the old print-at-any-price arrogance, papers need to guard against becoming too soft, too cautious, too skittish about shaking up the audience.
For all the rhetoric about "dumbing down," I saw little evidence of that. The bigger problem, I fear, isn't dumbing but dulling.
Editors recognize the tension between managing change and maintaining spark. "I worry sometimes that all this emphasis on public journalism and on knowing your community makes us narrow," Sarasota Executive Editor Weaver says. Her response is to push in two directions at once, to think of both the traditional editor's question ("What's the story?") and the reformist corollary ("Who are the people who have a stake in the story?").
Perhaps the biggest change I observed is an increasing openness to change. Fearful of extinction, goaded by reformists and critics and grumpy readers, exhorted by their bosses, everyday newspeople have dropped their defenses and loosened their resistance. They seem convinced change is inevitable even if they remain uncertain of its precise configuration. I
n Newport News one day, editors were crafting front-page teasers. "I want some good inflammatory language," one editor began lustily. Then, spying me in the room taking notes, he added swiftly, "some good inflammatory language that's responsible."
Inflammatory and responsible? Is such a combination possible?
If there is a typical position, it may be held by Julie Murchison Harris, 41, a news editor at the Bangor Daily News. In a way, Harris is a throwback to the days when ink-in-the-blood seemed to infect people. She came to the paper 21 years ago as a college intern, and loved the smell of the place so much that she would hang around after work and venture late at night into the pressroom to watch the paper roll.
In part, she is an aggressive, old-world editor who pushes for strong content. When the Daily News took heat for publishing a picture of a shooting suspect handcuffed and face down in the street, Harris defended it at a local college. "This happened in your community, folks," she remembers saying. "We are sorry that it happened, but our responsibility is to reflect what happened."
But in part Harris also typifies the new culture. She draws the line at publishing material she considers too private. "When you're a community newspaper, that puts an added level of responsibility on you," she believes. She works at community connection, serving on a local domestic violence task force. As a manager, she has come to "look at the newspaper as a product, not just a calling," though "this has been a hard thing."
To Harris, as to numerous other rank-and-file journalists I encountered, matters like civic journalism, credibility enhancement and new directions are not daily conversation points, grand cure-alls or even definable terms. But they reverberate around the newsroom and inside journalists' heads. Cumulatively they are becoming part of the everyday mind-set, a kind of newsroom background music whose cadences and phrasings are inserting their way into the rhythms of the institution.
"If we do our jobs well," Harris tells me, "we perform civic journalism--whatever you want to call it. I don't think of civic journalism as a national trend. To me, community journalism, civic journalism, is what we do every day."