AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 1996

The Pew Connection   

A Philadelphia foundation with no journalism tradition is emerging as a major player in the news business, championing (and funding) civic journalism projects and rescuing a highly respected polling organization.

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

The time was January 1993, the setting was Philadelphia. Rebecca W. Rimel, the soft-spoken, articulate head of one of America's wealthiest foundations, emerged from a meeting that touched her deeply. The participants had concluded that something must be done to overcome the alienation of American citizens from their communities, their government and each other.

The Pew Charitable Trusts often convenes discussions, but this one was particularly stimulating. Media types, civic leaders, volunteer organizers, all agreed the news media have played a role in the disintegration of public trust. They talked about whether the press could help or hinder efforts to bridge the gulf. They groped for solutions.

"I was really jazzed up about the meeting," says Rimel, president of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which gives away $180 million a year. "I'm not even sure public journalism was mentioned."

An hour later, by coincidence, Rimel met with James K. Batten, then the chairman and chief executive of Knight-Ridder, the nation's second-largest newspaper company. Batten, who died last year, was widely known as an advocate of public journalism, a movement that encourages the press to stimulate citizen involvement in community affairs. But Batten hadn't come to talk about the nascent public journalism movement. He was there seeking Pew money to rebuild houses destroyed by Hurricane Andrew.

"I started talking about this meeting," Rimel recalls. "I said, 'I'm sorry. Just give me five minutes.' " She then proceeded to download her enthusiasm for finding ways to get citizens more deeply involved in the democratic process. Batten lit up like a bottle rocket. Someone else spoke his language.

Batten planted the idea that the media, print in particular, were critically important in giving citizens a voice. He piqued Rimel's interest in journalism, an area that Pew had shied away from in the past.

Today, with no journalism tradition, Pew has emerged as a major player in the field. The Pew Charitable Trusts and Rimel have become high profile champions of civic journalism, a fast-growing and controversial movement. Since fall 1993 the foundation has donated at least $12.2 million to various media enterprises, $6.4 million of it to support civic journalism. In some cases Pew provides lump sums so newspapers and broadcast outlets can conduct polls, convene focus groups, send reporters out of town and rent apartments for neighborhood reporting. The overarching goal is to stimulate public involvement.

The foundation established a Washington, D.C., presence with its Pew Center for Civic Journalism, which distributes the money to news organizations and spreads the message of civic journalism. The foundation also contributed to the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation for community journalism projects, to the Citizens Election Project and National Public Radio to look for alternatives to "horse race" political coverage and to Soundprint Media Center for civic journalism online.

Pew provides the money for the James K. Batten Award for Excellence in Civic Journalism, which at $25,000 is one of journalism's more lucrative prizes.

And when Times Mirror announced plans to shutter its Center for the People & the Press, Pew came to the rescue. The foundation donated funds to keep the respected Washington-based polling organization open for three more years, asking only that it be called the Pew Research Center.

Pew is also bankrolling the efforts of former Washington Post political reporter Paul Taylor to convince television networks to give free air time to presidential candidates.

And, as devotees of NPR know, the Pew Charitable Trusts underwrites the network's reporting on culture, the environment and religion.

Pew, once a relatively obscure charity, is suddenly sprouting up everywhere in the world of journalism. "You mean the Pew media monopoly," jokes NPR Editorial Director John Dinges. He adds, "It's an interesting experiment by a foundation to get into the world of media with some definite ideas for innovation or change."

What is the Pew Charitable Trusts and why is it so interested in civic journalism? The answer lies more with Rebecca Rimel than with the Trusts' nine board members. Rimel, a former emergency room nurse and assistant professor of neurology, has done much to change the direction of a foundation once known for its low profile and conservative leanings.

The Pews are an old Philadelphia family whose fortune comes from the Sun Oil Co. The founder's four children used some of their considerable wealth to set up seven separate trusts that are jointly administered as the Pew Charitable Trusts. Together they became a major charity, generously handing out money to Philadelphia organizations, especially the neediest. They didn't call press conferences; their style was to quietly, often anonymously, dole out their largesse.

Until 1987 there was no listing for the Pew Charitable Trusts in the Philadelphia telephone directory. This was due to "a very deep religious conviction that one does not need recognition for their good deeds," says Rimel, 45, who joined Pew in 1983 to run its health programs.

"It was a very conservative family and nobody paid attention to the foundation," says Peter Binzen, a longtime business columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Fifteen years ago I remember going down there, and you could not get any information about them."

It was J. Howard Pew, one of the four children, who built the family business into a global enterprise. And he left the strongest imprint on the family foundation, created in 1957. Under his direction it supported such causes as open markets, lower taxes and less government regulation.

J. Howard Pew died in 1971, and the philanthropy began to evolve. In the late 1980s the board decided that the Pew Charitable Trusts no longer would do its good works in anonymity. Now it would seek national attention.

"It had been a bit of a mom and pop operation," says Rimel, who became executive director in 1988, president four years later and now earns $318,213 a year. "We had grown up slowly. We had had a very small staff. The board gave me the directive that we want this to be a national foundation with a local commitment."

Mom and pop have been replaced by 115 employees who donate $180 million in roughly 450 grants a year, making Pew the nation's third largest foundation in terms of annual giving.

With assets of $3.8 billion, the trust gives 20 to 30 percent of its annual donation to Philadelphia arts and human services groups. It also supports population control efforts, and contributes to national and international organizations in six areas: religion, environment, culture, education, public policy and health and human services.

"I guess if you had to put a tag on us," Rimel says, "we are really trying to help a lot of the organizations and institutions we work with recapture the middle ground."

Rimel doesn't pretend to be a media junkie. She's a technopeasant who grew up on a farm, she says, admitting she'd be lost on the Internet. But she sees the press as a vehicle for reaching out to citizens and getting them to care about their government and community. She's careful to point out that Pew is not interested in reforming or reviving newspapers.

"Our foray into civic or public journalism is really via the back door," Rimel says. "I've never had any particular interest--didn't see it as our role, still don't--how journalism goes about its business. Except we do see it as an issue if journalism can be used as a tool, as a way to get the public reconnected, reinvigorated, recommitted to democratic values...

"Increasingly, we understand the power of the press. They are extraordinarily powerful in shaping opinions and giving people information. Given that power, any way that the press might play a role in any kind of experiment in journalism to provide that information in a more effective, efficient, user-friendly way appeals to us."

Enter Edward M. Fouhy, a television journalist with a long resumé. Fouhy had been CBS' Saigon bureau chief, ran both the CBS and ABC Washington bureaus and served as Walter Cronkite's senior Washington producer.

And Fouhy, 61, had participated in that fateful January 1993 meeting at Pew.

His credentials impressed Rimel. While she had her own ideas about the need to revitalize American democracy, she also knew she needed talented, credible leaders to carry out the foundation's goals. When Batten spoke glowingly of Fouhy, Rimel sought out the TV veteran in an effort to focus the amorphous talk about the media's role in "reconnecting" citizens. She was prepared to woo him with flowers and chocolates, but it wasn't necessary. Fouhy was hooked.

Pew "asked me if I could think of a strategy to deal with this growing sense of alienation which they had already sensed," Fouhy recalls. "It became pretty obvious that if you were going to do the kind of outreach that I recommended in the strategy paper, that you would have to have some kind of base."

By September 1993 Fouhy had that base. Pew had given him $3.6 million to open an office and coordinate a three-year effort to promote its new cause. The Pew Center for Civic Journalism was set up to underwrite media partnerships interested in experimenting in the new approach. Pew gave another $600,000 to the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation to foster partnerships between electronic and print media to do civic journalism projects. NPR received $290,000 for its Voter Project, in which five public radio stations tried to cover the 1994 elections in ways that would stimulate citizen interest. Pew gave the project another $250,000 for 1996.

In an attempt to improve election coverage, the Pew Center gave $835,000 to the 1996 Citizens Election Project, run by former Time magazine Washington Bureau Chief Stan Cloud. (Readers should know that the University of Maryland College of Journalism, which publishes AJR, administers the Pew Center's support for the Citizens Election Project. AJR receives none of the college's management fee for this service.)

Civic journalism, Pew-style, Pew-funded, was off and running. But the movement was hardly invented by Pew. In 1990, Davis "Buzz" Merritt, editor of the Wichita Eagle, infused his paper's political coverage with the spirit of public journalism. The Eagle sought to determine which issues were of paramount importance to Wichita- area residents and focused its reporting efforts on them. It dramatically de-emphasized "horse race" and "inside baseball" coverage.

Jim Batten was an early proponent of the concept. He convinced the Knight Foundation to donate $513,000 in 1993 to set up the Project on Public Life and the Press to stimulate interest in civic journalism. Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor who directs the project, says he's currently monitoring about 160 public journalism endeavors.

"We emphasize a kind of intellectual journey that we feel is at the heart of public journalism," says Rosen. "The Pew Center is more apt to say: 'Jump in and do it, and you'll see what the value is.' I think both approaches are needed because different journalists will be attracted to different approaches."

Nonetheless, public journalism is a concept that many journalists still have a hard time grasping. And many traditional journalists have been quite critical of the movement.

"I've never understood it," says former New York Times Executive Editor Max Frankel. "I've read all the theory on it. Some of it sounds like good old fashioned reporting. Some of it sounds like getting in bed with the promotion department, and that's unfortunate. Some of it sounds downright political."

Says Fouhy, "If you have to have a sound bite on it, and I hate to because it's complicated, I like to say it's just getting the citizen's voice listened to in the newsroom."

The Pew Center is undeterred by criticism of its cause, and more and more journalists do seem to "get it," as Fouhy would say. His center is providing $575,000 for 17 newspaper/radio/ television partnerships for community-oriented projects in 1996. And it will cosponsor at least four workshops on the subject this year.

"The first year was all criticism," says Jan Schaffer, the Pew Center's deputy director and a former Philadelphia Inquirer business editor. "The second year there was a lot of curiosity and people trying it. The third year is, 'How exactly do I do this?' "

Since 1993, the Pew Center has provided money for 34 projects in 24 cities--recipients include 22 newspapers, 24 television stations and 20 radio stations. The funds pay for items that would be outside a newsroom budget, with the strict caveat, says Rimel, that they not be used to buy newsprint or cover normal operating costs.

The money covers such items as polling, town meetings and focus groups, and sometimes the salary of a newsroom coordinator, who sets up meetings and functions much like a community organizer.

This year's grants range in size from $5,000 (for a partnership in Tampa) to $61,000 (for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and KARE-TV).

While big foundations such as Ford, Robert Wood Johnson, Knight and Kaiser have given money to the press, it's often for seminars, press education or fellowships for individual reporters. It's rarely given directly to newspapers or commercial electronic outlets.

"For foundations to give grants to commercial newspapers to carry out tasks or information gathering would be very unusual," says Waldemar Nielsen, an author and columnist for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The Pew Charitable Trusts doesn't give funds directly to news outlets; federal law prohibits foundations from donating money to for-profit organizations. Instead the money goes through Fouhy's shop. A 13-member advisory board, chaired by University of Maryland journalism professor Hodding Carter III, decides how the funds should be spent. Money goes only to media partnerships (as opposed to a single news outlet), for projects that involve carrying out--not just studying--a civic journalism venture.

The projects might focus on education, or transportation, or making neighborhoods safer. The goal is to reach a public consensus about a problem and how it might be solved.

The hope is that Pew money will be used to begin an experiment the papers will continue on their own. "A lot of papers are going to be increasingly saying we ought not to take money," Carter says. "Pew is not in the business of subsidizing newspapers. We are in the business of encouraging the idea."

Roberto Suro, deputy national editor at the Washington Post, is the Pew Center advisory board's resident skeptic. "My usual question--sometimes one that's repeated ad nauseam--is the civic part is fine, but where is the journalism?" Suro says. "I want to make sure I understand how this is journalism and to make sure the whole enterprise falls within the boundaries of what most people would agree is journalism."

Suro is concerned about the Pew-funded coordinators, such as Charlene Price-Patterson, who handled logistics for public journalism events sponsored by the Charlotte Observer, WSOC-TV and two radio stations. She also arranged child care, refreshments and transportation, and spent some time "knocking on doors to publicize the event," she wrote in the Pew Center's newsletter.

"If I was a newspaper editor," Suro says, "I would not feel comfortable having someone in that position and particularly not in the newsroom."

Jim Walser, who coordinated the Observer's "Taking Back Our Neighborhoods" project last year, says some reporters did feel uneasy about having a coordinator in the newsroom. "But from the standpoint of editors, it worked well," he adds. "Charlene wasn't putting stories in the newspaper. She was giving us information. She knew a hell of a lot more people in the neighborhoods than any of our neighborhood reporters."

One of the more ambitious projects carried out with Pew Center backing focused on public safety. "Safer Cities," a joint venture of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, KARE-TV and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, won $62,000 last year for a 10-part series that attempted to get beyond clichéd coverage of crime. "What 'Safer Cities' and what public journalism was for us was trying to find other ways to talk with readers about the crime problem in a way that might..help them deal with it rather than leaving them feeling paralyzed," says Managing Editor Ken Doctor.

Pew dollars paid for a detailed $25,000 poll of 2,853 adults in a seven-county area, including translations for Hispanic and Hmong residents. They financed reporters' trips to Louisville, Kentucky, and Virginia Beach, Virginia, to see what they were doing to combat crime. And they enabled reporter Richard Chin to rent a $325-a-month unfurnished apartment in Frogtown, a St. Paul neighborhood with a high crime rate.

"You get to learn by just walking around the neighborhood," Chin says. "We don't do that as reporters. We go in our car, report, go back to the office, write up the story and go back to our middle-class neighborhoods. Sometimes we don't even go there. We just get on the phone."

In classic public journalism fashion, the paper teamed up with St. Paul, Ramsey County and the Wilder Foundation's research arm to convene neighborhood forums. Sponsoring such events--and then covering them--is one of the aspects of public journalism that has elicited sharp criticism from more traditional journalists. Gene Roberts, managing editor of the New York Times, said recently, "I believe in public journalism too..but my definition involves covering public meetings, not sponsoring them."

Whatever one thinks about public or civic journalism, there's no doubt it is spreading. That's especially true at mid-size papers, where resources for major reporting projects often are hard to come by and Pew money can seem particularly appealing. Using foundation money for such things as polling, travel and forums is a relatively new experience for commercial newspapers and TV and radio stations.

When former Philadelphia Inquirer Associate Editor Fran Dauth talked to the San Francisco Chronicle about a job last year, she asked Managing Editor Dan Rosenheim whether his paper had accepted money from Pew. He told her it had. Dauth wondered why the paper didn't use its own money. Rosenheim cited budget constraints.

"I don't know any particular evil about taking money from Pew," says Dauth, now running the state capital bureau for Newark's Star-Ledger. "But it seems to go against the training of what we do. The newspapers are taking money from an outside source. The outside source says, 'You can have this money if you do this kind of story.' It also seems to me once you become dependent on an outside source to finance the project, you give up independence."

Taking money from foundations can be dicey. The Philadelphia Inquirer found itself at the center of a media flap when it hired urban expert Neal Peirce for an editorial board project on regionalism last year. The Inquirer paid for the project. But Peirce had received money for expenses indirectly from the New Era foundation. When the Wall Street Journal reported that New Era was a Ponzi scheme that had ensnared dozens of charities, the Inquirer was tarred.

Ironically, the Inquirer had applied to the Pew Center for money for the Peirce project. It was turned down but invited to try again after changing its application. Editor Maxwell E.P. King says the paper decided it shouldn't take foundation money and didn't reapply.

"At this point," King says, "I'd be very, very reluctant to take any funding from any foundation for a journalism project because I'd worry whether that would impinge on the independence of the newspaper. Besides, we make plenty of money. We can fund our own journalism."

Rosenheim says the Chronicle discussed the ramifications of taking money from a foundation. "The primary issue was whether we were in any way sacrificing our independence," he says. "The conclusion was that we were not and have not."

Kate Parry, who supervised the St. Paul project, says the Pioneer Press also wrestled with the wisdom of taking Pew money and concluded it posed no problem. "I think the compromise would come if you were locally funded by a foundation you would have to cover or if you had to depend on the foundation for operating," she says. "Then they'd have the clout to say, 'Do it this way.' "

By all accounts, Pew attaches no strings. "Our experience working with Pew is there is no interference and no other agenda," says St Paul's Ken Doctor.

Andrew Kohut, a beneficiary of Pew's largesse, says he expects no marching orders. Kohut was executive director of the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press, which faced extinction at the end of last year when the parent company withdrew funding. Then Pew appeared like a white knight. The foundation funded the operation, known for its polls on attitudes about the media, for three years.

Pew will have no say in selecting polling questions, Kohut and Rimel say. "All I have to do," says Kohut, "is do what we've done and be independent and nonpartisan and try to be as objective as possible."

The foundation also moved quickly to help former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor. Taylor left the Post in December, disgusted with the tone of today's political coverage. He wanted to help bring about reform and embarked on a campaign to persuade TV networks to give presidential candidates free airtime during prime viewing hours the month before the election.

In January Pew gave Taylor, 47, a six-month consulting contract, providing $111,864 for salary, travel expenses and setting up conferences. "My notion is to try and catch people who are falling out of the system," Taylor says.

Pew also has asked Taylor to talk to industry leaders and respected journalists to find out if there are other ways Pew might invest its money to help the press regain public confidence.

Rimel instructed Taylor to come up with a "menu" of creative ideas. "Paul may come back and say we need to get together a small think tank with leading people," she says. "But those leading people may have quite different opinions on civic journalism. That's OK."

Because, Rimel adds, Pew doesn't see civic journalism as a panacea.

"The critics [of civic journalism] might be right," she says, "but give me some other ideas. What other ways can the press start to regain the confidence of the public?"