2000 Batten Symposium Dinner Keynote Address

Campaign 2000: Pressure is on the Traditional Press
Will We Reform Coverage? Or Will We Continue Our Old Ways?

Pam Johnson
Executive Editor
The Arizona Republic

Pam Johnson has been Senior Vice President for News and Executive Editor of The Arizona Republic since 1996. Before that, she was managing editor of The Republic from 1993 through its merger with the Phoenix Gazette in 1995. She had also been managing editor at The Gazette from 1989 until 1993. She is past President of the Associated Press Managing Editors Association and is a founder of the Journalism and Women's Symposium, which sponsors an annual weekend retreat for women journalists.

I was invited to present thoughts about campaign coverage so far this year. But, before I get to those observations, I want to emphasize how much our lack of diversity and our credibility issues hamper our most genuine efforts to do the best journalism possible. Our staffs do not reflect our community's make up, whether the distinctions are racial, cultural, religious, political, sexual preference, economic or generational.

Demographic changes greatly affect the issues for democracy and the issues of how we build communities. It takes only a small leap of faith to get to this point: if our newspapers or stations aren't connected to our readers or viewers, or to significant segments in our communities, then our coverage - politics or otherwise - is not important in their lives.

I think the primary coverage this year was pretty traditional and it likely connected with people who look like those of us who are in this room tonight. It probably didn't connect with people who don't look like us and aren't here tonight.

The components of the coverage were the predictable kinds. We had the daily reports from the campaign trails. This is not to demean the work that got done, but this is the predictable way that we do elections, right? We had the truth checks on campaign ads. We had the charges and countercharges back and forth between the candidates. And we had the campaign strategies: why they were doing this and going there and handling things this way.

We chased Bush and cocaine, and we chased Gore and campaign finance, and there was barely a public response. We dutifully, and I think respectfully, reported on the field of challengers, although many of them were far-behind challengers. I thought the coverage was very respectful to that group of people. We haven't always been.

Major issues were analyzed, generally by the national press or the large dailies that can invest in that reporting time. And we spent a lot of time in a special place called the Straight Talk Express, the McCain bus that traveled through the primary states.

Another point and one that concerns me a bit and leads into the next part of what I want to say tonight: Once we knew for sure that the Republican and Democratic candidates were going to be Gore and Bush, I don't know if you noticed, but I felt like there was this collective groan from the press. Did I misinterpret that? Is there anybody here who noticed that as well?

It was more like, 'Oh no, this is more of a sentence than an assignment.' I thought it was fairly obvious. And I think then one more gap emerges between those of us who cover the news for our readers and our readers who deserve to have good election coverage.

So, I think the primaries illustrated that we still are relying on old routines and reflexes.

Now what I liked about the primaries were some of the signs that favored citizens in this campaign. I thought the debates were very well used. They were well-run and frequent enough that people kept tuning into them. I thought that was one of the reasons for some of the good turnouts in the primaries. The debates helped inspire that.

Voter-interest sites sprung up everywhere on the web. I realize not everything you read on the web can be believable, but I like the idea of citizens feeling they can touch something themselves. They can find out something. They can go chase it. They can deal with it. They can analyze it themselves. Up until now, if we or television didn't tell them about things, they might not know. But, now, they can go look.

That was very encouraging from the citizens' perspective.

In an interesting experiment with the future of elections, Arizona Democrats - there are three now - took the bold step of holding their primary election online. Now a lot of protests were raised. This even went to court, mind you. People thought that some people might vote twice, there would be ballot stuffing, somebody might not get to vote at all, and that this could invite the democracy to fall, to collapse.

Well, the judge thought better of all of those arguments and actually let the Democrats go ahead, probably because an election of Democrats in Arizona is pretty inconsequential.

The primary online did generate a lot of interest. Something about it struck people. And for those who are on the Internet, computer literate, this is how they live. This is how they get information every day. And this is how they can vote. It was an interesting insight.

I think we're beginning to see, from this election season, some positive signs from the citizens' perspective and some signs we should be watching, reacting to and taking into account.

Finally, mainly because it's related to the debates, I am so thankful that C-SPAN is there because it keeps people hooked in. They were good soldiers and they did most, if not all, of the debates. You just knew you were tuning in and getting the real picture. I think we're very fortunate to have C-SPAN around.

So we should celebrate all of this good stuff about citizens having these connections and these ways to follow issues and campaigns. Things will be messy from time to time as these trends grow, but I would rather have citizens involved and things messy than to put out a newspaper every day that just doesn't hit everybody, that gets no response, where citizens don't vote, where voter turnout in national elections, statewide elections and city hall elections, we're lucky to get a third [of registered voters].

Whatever we can do to celebrate and build on that citizen feeling of belonging in the discussion is very important to us.

Now, here we are facing the fall election and we have the two candidates that we have.

I want to say it is important, at your local news organization, to cover the presidential election as though it were a local story because it is. It is not a national story that could be told only by the national press that travels with candidates. Let's talk about this a little bit.

One issue we know in this election will be education. That is a given. Now how will your voters, your residents, your readers, understand what the presidential candidates are talking about - and how it affects your own schools, your own educational system, the issues of safety in schools, just start down the list - if they don't understand what's at issue in your own locale?

If you did stories throughout the election season about the uneven funding of schools in your districts, the tax base controversies that come up about how to fund schools, issues inside classrooms like language barriers, special-ed programs and gifted programs, access to technology, charter schools and voucher programs, standards testing. If you talked to your communities about these issues and found out what their concerns are and what they would like to see done, what you do is you create an excellent dialogue around the issue of education at a time when you have presidential candidates talking about the perspective from that higher level.

It will give them, first, a complete picture locally, one they can help shape the discussion around. Then they can have that local context when they make a decision for president. There may be a link that they see, that one presidential candidate makes a difference to what needs to be done in education in my town. My town may be different than yours.

I think there is a great opportunity to bring these national issues to your readers in your community's context rather than generalized issue stories that come from someplace else. That's not what your community needs.

Another issue, and this one is really important for newspapers and all news organizations to help explain, is this "new economy" buzzword. What does this mean in your town? Is your town in the mainstream of technology development? Or is your town rushing to catch up? What is the existing workforce in your town? Are there training and re-training needs? What effect does this emerging new economy have on your major employers in town? How do the workers feel? Are they concerned about their future? Or are they more concerned about what's going to happen to their children's future? What are the state and local leaders in your community doing to frame a mission and a plan for your community's survival as our economy makes this major shift?

What a great series! I think everybody ought to talk about what's happening with the economic engine in your town, because the election of a president is going to have an impact on that. Every national issue is local. And the local context that we can give our readers makes us valuable to them.

Two weeks ago, at the ASNE convention, three leading publishers or CEOs in our business, the President of the United States, and the CEO of America Online all expressed a lot of optimism about the future of newspapers and the future of journalism in the Internet world.

But that optimism hinges on our deeply rooted capabilities to provider our readers with local insight and on our deepest commitment to our community. I want to introduce you to someone named Jesse Daily. Now I wish Jesse were here this evening because I haven't met Jesse yet, but I sure talk a lot about him. He is a college freshman in the Midwest. He describes himself as a geek. He lives on the Internet and he sees little relevance, to him, in newspapers. But Jesse came to know several people in our field and he eventually wound up writing a paper about the future of news in America.

I was struck by the mature analysis this 19-year- old provided and wanted to share it with you because of its relevance at this point in our journalistic lives. This is what Jesse wrote:

To continue to serve the community needs for information, news organizations must do so in a manner that does not infringe on any of the personal freedoms. They must be willing to share some of their power with the rest of the world. They are no longer the gatekeepers of information. The role of the journalist will be changed forever. Their position atop the mount of information will be replaced with seats in the heart of the throng.

It becomes necessary then for a journalist to begin to serve the public instead of provide for it. A journalist should be able to effectively, clearly, and quietly mediate between the masses of information and the masses of consumers bringing them a refined and pertinent truth.

Borrowing an image from Bruce Koon at the Mercury Center in San Jose, Jesse said that, like the host of a good dinner party, one should not try to dominate the conversation or to lecture your guests, but rather one should help guide the flow of conversation and encourage meaningful information exchange, only stepping in when necessary, and, overall, letting the guests - our readers - do the work and reap the rewards.

I was most struck in what he wrote by the image of journalists atop the mount of information. And it's an image of detachment and distance and aloofness. And to me our Batten winners tonight approached journalism from the seat in the heart of the throng that Jesse described. They were accessible and close to the people. And their journalism made a difference in their communities. There is no higher calling for any of us.


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