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Civic Journalism

Originally appeared in the National Civic Review.

In its first effort at inventing a new relationship between the newsroom and the Internet, New Hampshire Public Radio came up with an elegantly logical idea. It created an on-line Tax Calculator that last year helped state residents actually compute the cost of different tax reform measures to their own pocketbooks.

Tens of thousands of people logged on, and not only did they calculate
their potential tax bills, but they also commented in a “Feedback Zone” that
generated story leads for the statewide radio network.

This year, NHPR has taken its experiment one step further. In a new Web
site called “Shock Value,” the journalists are helping citizens calculate the
potential savings of utility deregulation. This time, however, citizen comments
are going not only to the newsroom, but also directly to the specific committee
in the state legislature that is making utility deregulation decisions.

“Very powerful,” says NHPR senior editor Jon Greenberg, who spearheaded
both projects.

The Internet is dramatically changing the capacity of news organizations
to help citizens grapple in very customized ways with public policy and community
issues. And it’s doing so in a way that is enriching journalism.

The tax challenge project, among others, demonstrated how news organizations
can aggregate information related to a specific issue in one spot as a
standing resource.

“Little chunks of information [are] gathered and organized in a way that
people can work through, and [they] do so when they’re ready to do it[, n]ot
when we broadcast information, [and] not when they pick up a newspaper or
see it on TV,” Greenberg says. “It’s when they want [to do it].”

By integrating news with the Web and with face-to-face or cyber conversations,
news organizations can help foster a sense of wholeness around what
can be highly emotional, divisive issues.

“People can get a sense of the totality of an issue,” Greenberg says. “And
rather than be swept away by this fire hose of information that is daily journalism,
they get a chance to say [that] this is important and I want to be able
to get my arms around it. That’s what we can allow them to do. We can allow
them to focus and develop a sense of personal mastery.”

By providing people with information and some analytical tools and giving
them a way, at their own pace, to think about that information and react
to it, a news organization can help create a fairly healthy environment for the
exchange of thoughtful ideas.

Then, when journalists dip into that pool of informed thoughtfulness, it
changes the way they cover stories. They start to see different stories—not the
stories as framed by advocacy groups or policy makers, but stories that ordinary
citizens are trying to muddle through and make sense of.

Creating the civic spaces (on-line, on the air, or in the paper) to make all this
happen is giving journalists some “a-ha!” realizations—for one, that the Internet
is more than just another medium for delivering traditional news stories.

The new communications technologies are also opening up ways for news
organizations to fulfill an old mission: to call attention to the shared interests,
values, and concerns that bind a community as a real place and help to create
that sense of place.

This is a departure from typical Webspeak, which equates the idea of community
with cyber-connecting people who share similar interests, regardless
of their geographical location.

In melding the new communications technologies with old missions,
many newspaper editors around the country are also creating new capacities
for interaction—giving people some roadmaps for how to get involved, shoulder
some responsibility, have a dialogue, or take ownership of community
problems. Sometimes these interactions occur in real space, such as in town
hall meetings or citizen forums, or in news space in the paper, or on the air.
Or they can occur in cyberspace.

So-called community publishing is one manifestation. Community publishing
enables community organizations—using software tools provided by
the news outlets and their partner companies—to set up their own Web sites,
which are then linked to the news company.

This builds the capacity for local groups to communicate with their
members more quickly and easily. They can schedule meetings, sign up volunteers, organize fundraisers, and discuss issues. And they can send press
releases or calendar listings to the media—and the journalists can “reverse
publish” them, linking to the information instead of, again, typing it and publishing
it. Community groups can even raise money, much as today’s political
campaigns do.

The Bergen Record has created a whole cyber community of North Jersey
Latinos with its Web site,

As with any new frontier, there are some internal newsroom arguments
about how the capacity to do new things fits in with their proper community
role. But increasingly, news organizations are moving quickly to experiment
with new kinds of roles.

They are trying to stake their claim in this new communications environment
and build what they think is important before other people define the rules.

Jan Schaffer is executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism.

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