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Civic Journalism—Growing and Evolving

Originally published in the March 2005 edition of Nieman Reports by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.

In Edgar, Wisconsin, three women who used to hunker down to watch their afternoon TV soap operas now have become C-SPAN junkies, converts to a new cause of civic engagement.

In Charlotte, N.C., citizens recently opened their newspapers to read a list of things critically needed in five of the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. They were so moved that more than 500 immediately volunteered to help. Most had a solution or two to the problems right in their own hands.

In Tallahassee, more than 300 citizens met in an electronic town hall, taking a new pathway to civic engagement. Without leaving their homes, they simply turned on their computers and dialed into the Tallahassee Freenet, there to spend two hours talking about their community’s needs. “It was a real gas,” said Tallahassee Democrat associate editor Bill Edmonds, who suggested taking the newspaper’s Public Agenda project on-line. While it may have been frustrating, at times, to have more than 300 people trying to “talk” at once, “It was oddly energizing,” he said.

All these citizens have come face-to-face with journalism that is a little different in their local newspapers and on their television and radio stations.

It may not be entirely new, but it does have some new names. Variously called civic, public or community journalism, it has energized not only citizens, but also editors and news directors who have been trying it in dozens of communities across the country in the last year or two.

Simply put, most civic journalism initiatives make a deliberate attempt to reach out to citizens, to listen to them, and to have citizens listen and talk to each other. Sometimes his happens in large town meetings, at other times in more intimate living-room conversations; sometimes at public debates, at other times in focus groups.

If attendance and response levels are any indicators, most citizens who have had the experience seem to like being invited to take a more active role in their communities, to help define just what the problems are, set an agenda, establish priorities and figure out solutions.

As the three Wisconsin women discovered, it can be a lot more challenging and even more fun than the afternoon soaps. They’re now regulars on the Wisconsin town meeting circuit.

By now, enough civic journalism efforts have been printed and broadcast to demonstrate that they are good journalism–as well as good catalysts to civic discourse.

It would be hard to top the kind of neighborhood reporting The Charlotte Observer has undertaken in its eight-month-old “Taking Back our Neighborhoods/Carolina Crime Solutions” project. Their tough, old fashioned, shoe-leather information gathering led the North Carolina Press Association to award
the series a first place prize for public service.

This year will see ever more civic journalism projects launched. Indeed, the Pew Center will help fund 12 of them. Among them are not only new projects, but efforts by experienced practitioners to let their initiatives evolve in new directions.

The Charlotte Observer, for instance, wants to figure out where next to take its crime series. “We have been astonished at the civic energy the series has R unleashed,” said Editor Jennie Buckner.

The Wisconsin State Journal, a partner in one of the nation’s longest-running civic journalism efforts, is planning to tackle even more controversial issues than it has up until now, including the venerable, but sprawling 26-campus University of Wisconsin and the racial theories expounded in the controversial book “The Bell Curve.”

Similarly, newspaper, television and radio partners involved in U.S. Senate and gubernatorial election projects last year, led by National Public Radio, are eager to apply the lessons they have learned to the 1996 presidential primary and general election campaigns.

As the types of civic journalism initiatives are evolving, so, too, is the understanding within the profession. Early criticism is turning to curiosity as editors ask to see more and practitioners profess total puzzlement at how their efforts could possibly be tarred with such labels as boosterism or

“Facilitating a meeting is not the same as participating in the outcome,” says Wisconsin State Journal Associate Editor Tom Still, who with partner Dave Iverson, Executive Producer of Wisconsin Public Television, have spearheaded the successful “We the People/Wisconsin.” That three-year-old partnership, which has grown to include public radio and WISC-TV, the CBS affiliate, has continually
evolved as it seeks to introduce citizens variously to election campaigns, federal issues, state problems and to engage young people in the process of citizen deliberation and decision making. Likewise, NPR Editorial Director John Dinges, who oversaw the 1993 election coverage, said, “The Citizens Agenda, not objectivity vs. advocacy, were at the heart of the NPR Election Project.”

The project involved intensive reporting by newspaper, radio and television partnerships in six cities on issues citizens wanted political candidates to address. Overall, more than 50 radio stations participated.

“Questions of objectivity or advocacy have not been a factor in any of our projects. Our stations and newspaper partners also did not ‘organize’ in the community,” Dinges said.

Civic journalism is nourished by a concern among top editors that something is amiss in their relationship with their readers and viewers. But they aren’t so out of touch with them that I they don’t know they aren’t in touch.

“The 11 o’clock news doesn’t reflect anyone’s life,” says veteran New York City television news producer Paul Sagan.

Richard Brady, a Cincinnati-based executive with Suburban Communication Corp., owners of suburban newspapers in several big cities, has a sign over his desk, “Change isn’t an option anymore. The option now is to become an agent of change not a victim of change.”

Both men are face to face with the paradox of journalism in the ‘Nineties: 1994 was a great year from a business point of view, with a total recovery from the recession, but each is facing declining audiences and the gnawing feeling that the ground is shifting under their feet and no one quite knows what to do about it.

For many big media companies under pressure from Wall Street, the way to deal with the uncertainties of the future is to seek alliances with hardware producers or owners of what are now called communications networks–previously known as telephone companies. But for some journalists worried about the future, there is a new willingness to consider other changes.

Paul Dolan of ABC News is one. He is looking for ways to protect the news franchise of the highly profitable stations that Capital Cities/ABC owns in such rich markets as New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago. He says he is convinced that one way to deal with the future is to return to core journalistic values.

That theme is echoed again and again among editors who are turning to civic journalism techniques. Consider the “We the People/Wisconsin” project. Now entering its fourth year, that media coalition has sponsored regular explorations of key state issues. The partners, with help from the market research firm, Wood Communications, host town meetings and focus groups around the state to
begin conversations on issues citizens have told the partners they consider vital. Reports appear on page one and one on the six o’clock news. Call-in radio programs give everyone who wants to participate an opportunity to do so in the weeks leading up to the live television specials that are the climax of the quarterly process. But at the heart of the process is hard, shoe leather reporting that transcends the easy, traditional formulas so characteristic of much of journalism.

Similar practices were used in dozens of other civic journalism projects underway in 1994. This year, new initiatives are being headed by The San Jose Mercury, The Detroit Free Press, The Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, The St. Paul Pioneer Press, The Bergen Record, The Dayton Daily News, The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, The Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury and The Seattle Times .

Their proposals range from studying solutions to children beset by violence in Detroit, to holding a community conversation in Grand Forks; from studying the quality of life in Bergen and Passaic Counties, to exploring citizen willingness to end traditional school boundaries in Rochester. 

Civic, or public, journalism experiments have been underway since 1990 when The Wichita Eagle’s Editor, Davis “Buzz” Merritt Jr., still smarting over the cynicism of the 1988 presidential campaign, decided his newspaper would no longer be manipulated by the political consultants. Instead, citizens would be the focus for his paper’s political coverage.

The idea was embraced and advanced in 1992 by Rich Oppel, then Executive Editor of The Charlotte Observer. Oppel formed a partnership with WSOC-TV, the Cox-owned ABC affiliate, to extend the reach of what came to be called “Your Vote in ’92.” 

Last year Ed Miller of The Poynter Institute for Media Studies teamed with NPR to extend the concepts of civic journalism Merritt and Oppel had pioneered. NPR, supported by a grant from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and the Carnegie Foundation, recruited top-flight public radio stations in Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Wichita and New Hampshire for a wide-ranging
election year experiment designed to break with past practices.

When the news directors of the stations and their newspaper partners gathered in San Francisco in December, 1994 to assess their experiments, they were still a little taken aback at the project’s impact. Citizens had connected with the political process; they flooded voice mail lines and callin shows. Perhaps even more surprising, many reporters, initially resistant to any change, bought into the methods of civic journalism. One of the participants, Walter Robinson, The Boston Globe’s Managing Editor for Metro News, wryly reflected on the attitude in his newsroom: “Reporters tend to reflect the interests of the institutions they cover rather than of their readers.”

Others talked about the impact of the project on readers. Sheri Dill, Executive Editor of The Wichita Eagle during the 1994 campaign, cited a postelection survey in which 75 percent of readers said the paper’s coverage was quite effective in interesting them to vote. That was up from under 35 percent in 1990. More than 88 percent of its readers said they were “satisfied” with the coverage, up nine percentage points from 1990. And 86 percent of readers–up from 72 percent in 1990–rated the Eagle’s election coverage as

Most striking, however, was the startling drop (from 55 percent to 38 percent) of readers who called television the “most helpful” source of information for voters, while The Eagle’s ranking as the “most helpful” source went from 30 percent to 39 percent. Moreover, Dill said, voter turnout in The Eagle’s circulation area was up three percent in the face of a two percent drop statewide.

While the Election Project editors expressed varying degrees of satisfaction about their efforts at their San Francisco gathering, they were all eager to talk about how they could use civic journalism techniques in day-to-day news coverage and to begin planning for the presidential campaign. No one wanted to return to the old ways of covering politics.

Next year’ s front-loaded primary season–with 27 primaries and caucuses scheduled to take place in just 39 days–has already prompted some editors and news directors to begin designing electionyear projects with a focus on voters, not just the candidates, their consultants and their pollsters. They are fearful the presidential primary will occur at such an accelerated rate that the extended
conversation candidates are supposed to hold with voters will be reduced to 10-second sound bites and 30-second negative m ads, the HIV virus of American politics. 

Television-newspaper-radio partnerships, in some cases building on the foundation of the 1994 NPR-Poynter-Pew election project alliances, are coming together in New Hampshire and other key states. The purpose is to create a series of citizen-centered campaign events, debates, town hall meetings, candidate-citizen conversations that will be too important for the candidates to ignore.

So what’s ahead for civic journalism? Some projects, begun last year will continue. In Charlotte, as a result of the civic journalism partnership, more than 500 citizens and groups have volunteered to help out, an eyesore in one neighborhood has been demolished, another neighborhood is getting a new recreation center and local law firms have rallied to file pro bono lawsuits to close crackhouses.
“We used to heighten conflict. We’d say to people, you go fight, we’ll hold your coats and write about it afterwards,” said Rick Thames, one of The Observer’s most experienced editors. “But we’ve learned that doesn’t serve our readers very well. They are tired of the conflict. They want to see solutions.”

In Florida, a community conversation begun by The Tallahassee Democrat and CBS affiliate, WCTV, under the rubric, “The Public Agenda,” is also continuing. It’s a conversation designed to find, focus and begin deliberations on such key community issues as roads and growth. It’s taking place in living rooms, churches, community centers, and, yes, on the local computer bulletin board, where
citizens want to continue their conversations, but just one issue at a time. The role journalists are playing in Tallahassee would have been familiar to newspaper editors of a hundred years ago. The Democrat and its TV partner have created an extension of the town hall, something that newspapers once commonly did. The Tallahassee media partnership provided what public opinion guru Daniel
Yankelovich calls the “public space” where citizens can gather and undertake the deliberation that must occur before they can reach a consensus.

Some civic journalism critics have confused this convening function with boosterism. Journalists, they say, have no business taking a role in any civic enterprise, except to report on it. Charlotte Observer Executive Editor Jennie Buckner doesn’t see it that way. “Our experience has been the opposite of boosterism,” says Buckner. “We have told the community hard truths about itself. We have asked the people of Charlotte and the neighborhoods [spotlighted by The Observer and its broadcast partners] to look at some of the most damaging pathologies in cities today. They have looked at them, owned up to them and decided to do something about them. We have not skirted around issues, we have taken them on. We have entered into a dialogue with the community about how we came to have these difficulties, but we have also talked with the community about solutions and committed to change.”

Like the neighborhood initiative in Charlotte, the Tallahassee project has little to do with politics and everything to do with governance, obviously a vital function in a democracy but one often regarded as boring to readers. Governance is, after all, the decisions political leaders make after the election that affect the lives of citizens.

As one editor said at the San Francisco meeting, “Governing may be boring to us, but it’s what our readers care about. Maybe we should dare to be boring. Our readers might surprise us.” 


Ed Fouhy is the Executive Director for the Center for Civic Journalism, an initiative for the Pew Charitable Trusts, which seeks to stimulate civic discourse and debate of public issues. He is also Executive Producer of Concord Communications Group, a Washington-based new and public affairs televisions production company. He produced the 1988 and 1992 Presidential debates, seen by more viewers than any political broadcast in history.

Jan Schaffer, former Business Editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, is Deputy Director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. As Business Editor, she directed the reporting and editing of two investigative series that were named finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. As a federal court reporter, she helped write a series of stories that won freedom for a man wrongly convicted of five murders. The stories led to the civil rights convictions of several Philadelphia homicide detectives. The articles won several national journalism awards, including the 1978 Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for Public Service.


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