1999 Batten Symposium Keynote Address

The Civic Journalism: It's Gotta Have Heart

Zack Stalberg
Executive Vice President, Editor
The Philadelphia Daily News


Jan Schaffer, Executive Director, Pew Center for Civic Journalism:

In the five years of the Batten Awards, I've seen it as an opportunity to give a respected editor the chance to put on a thinking cap and weigh in on this craft we call journalism. This year I'm very pleased that Zack Stalberg has agreed to take on this challenge.

We all know that this profession has its characters, and Zack, as editor and executive vice president of The Daily News in Philadelphia, may hold a special berth in the Hall of Rogues. He runs a feisty tabloid of about 200,000 circulation in a pretty tough town.

It's also a paper - and it's relevant in this setting - that has developed some special connections with its readers. Ninety percent of its circulation comes from street sales; on any given day there's no real guarantee of who your readers are going to be. So it has to speak the people's language.

For example, a mob hit outside a South Philadelphia diner is called "A Side Order of Lead." And when it became clear that the O.J. verdict was going to happen right on deadline, a Daily News headline writer came up with the now famous front-page mirror image that read: "Guilty/ Not Guilty," making The Daily News probably the only paper in the country to get the outcome of the trial correct. [Laughter.]

Daily News columnists connect with readers in very real ways. Its obit writer, Jim Nicholson, known as Dr. Death, is now studied in journalism textbooks because he celebrates the lives of ordinary people. Its Phantom Rider, Frank Dougherty, monitors the buses and subways on behalf of ordinary folks.

The Daily News has a beer, not a wine, reviewer by the name of Joe Sixpack. And a lot of good beat reporters, whom I've personally had to compete against in federal courts and city hall and who taught me a lot about journalism.

The Daily News has what Philadelphia calls an "atty-tood." It's not afraid to write: "Will the scum who stole the 11-year-old child's wheelchair-accessible van please return it?" And it's not afraid to take sides, like when Vet Stadium serves undersized beers.

Much of the personality of the paper derives from Zack himself. When a promotional gorilla atop the tall Daily News tower deflated one windy day, Zack invited readers to send it get-well cards. When Zack and his wife Debbie were having a child, he invited readers to name the baby. One contender was Tab Lloyd. [Laughter.]

Zack has known the highs and lows of the business. Under his tenure, the paper has won two Pulitzer Prizes. But he also spent a night, I'm told, awash in a bottle of Jack Daniels, certain that The Daily News had been shuttered, a sacrificial lamb in some labor negotiations. He's a no-bullshit kind of guy. Indeed, sources tell me he ends all his memos that way, "This is no bullshit." It's a trait that has kept his staff sharp, his paper alive. Yo, Zack.

Keynote Address

Zack Stalberg:

Thank you. I don't know about putting on my thinking cap, but I did want to be the first and maybe the only keynote speaker at a Pew event to wear a Jesse Ventura feather boa. Thanks to the Pioneer Press.

Thanks for having me here. Back in February, Jan wrote and asked if I would give this keynote address and I was flattered. And deep in the letter, which I still have, it said - it was an unsettling kind of question. It said, "You may wonder, why you?" So I read it, and I read it, and in fact there is no answer to that question, but we'll give it a try tonight.

The Daily News - and Philadelphia, for that matter, is not necessarily a civic journalism kind of town, and The Daily News is probably not your classic civic journalism kind of newspaper. Up until recently, we thought civic involvement was a good mob war. I appreciate the reference to "side order of lead," and I bring you from Philadelphia the latest mob news, which is that Skinny Joey Merlino, - I'm guessing that Minneapolis is not a big Mafia kind of a town - who was for a long time the heir-apparent has, you'll be pleased to know, moved up to the top job. He's running the Philadelphia mob and that's enabled him to move out of the small traditional rowhouse that even mobsters in Philadelphia live in, and move into sort of a big, palatial rowhouse. So The Daily News led the paper with the headline, "Joey Gets the Big House." [Laughter.]

So that's been our idea of civic involvement.

Why am I here tonight? First, I grew up under the wing of Jim Batten. I particularly appreciated his idea that newspapers could be vital to building communities, and I appreciated the fact that he tolerated the special character of The Daily News.

I will never forget him very carefully convincing a member of the Knight-Ridder board that a Daily News headline was okay. The member of the board was a religious guy. The headline was about Jim Bakker, the evangelist. The headline was, "Bakker Goes Bonkers." And Jim very patiently convinced him that was okay.

So I guess, first, I'm probably here because of my devotion to Jim. I run a little foundation that gives away something called the Batten Medal, which is hopelessly confused with these Batten Awards. And you try to explain to your 6-year-old why you've got to go to Minneapolis to talk about the Batten Award and then to Akron to talk about the Batten Medal. He just doesn't get it.

Another reason I guess I'm here is because I've become a true believer in civic journalism, or whatever you'd call it. I guess I'd like to call it potent journalism as opposed to civic journalism. And my conversion was sort of a surprise to me. And it happened over a period of time, basically because we just sat down with a bunch of loyal Daily News readers and asked them what they expected of The Daily News. While they did not use the term, obviously, their definition of what The Daily News should be very much included what, I think, those of us in this room would call civic journalism.

I guess the other reason Jan alluded to: I work out there on sort of a frontier of journalism. The Daily News has to prove its worth every day to every reader, and I think we've had to figure out how to try to make civic journalism work daily as a result of that. As Jan said, it's almost entirely single-copy sales. It's got the highest masthead price in the country. It is hopelessly bound up with The Philadelphia Inquirer, which is a little like the comedy team of Jerry Lewis and Madeleine Albright. [Laughter.]

So it's got its problems. To survive it really has to produce potent journalism every day in a city where fewer people read, fewer people live and fewer people are involved, really involved, in civic life.

$65-$75 a Vote

This is off-track slightly but just to give you a sense of that, we're currently in the midst of a strong mayoral election with five good, reasonably good, Democratic candidates vying for the primary. The election will eventually cost something in the neighborhood of $20 million; 300,000 or so people will vote in this primary. So the numbers to me are just astounding in terms of what the special interests are willing to pay. I can't do math too well off the top of my head, but that's probably something in the neighborhood of $65-$75 a vote to win that election.

So Philadelphia is really a great test case, and I guess I'd say The Daily News is a good test vehicle for civic journalism.

I'd like to start tonight talking about P.M. For those of you who missed the course in Lost Causes 101, P.M. was a New York tabloid that existed from 1940 to 1948. It died, in part, because of its increasingly leftist tone and because it had no business plan whatsoever. The Daily News emulated this for a long time.

There have not been many efforts to really reform American journalism. You know, because of the criticism that civic journalism has gotten, that basically it's a very static, tradition-bound, self-centered kind of a profession and it resists change. One of those efforts was P.M.

P.M. was - and this is close to my heart because it was a tabloid much like The Daily News - such a noble idea. Goofy, but noble. There's a new biography out now of Max Lerner, who was a P.M. columnist. Lerner was a thinker and columnist before those two terms were incompatible. And it was people of that quality who worked at that place.

As Sanford Lakoff wrote in this book about Lerner, which I ran across the other day, P.M. made a valiant effort to recreate the American newspaper in a more serious but lively form. So you can understand why at The Daily News we sort of look back at P.M. with a certain kind of a fondness. A more serious but lively form.

P.M. was the invention of Ralph Ingersoll, who put together the dummy issue with Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman. It never attracted much of an audience, especially given the scope of New York. But its style and intelligence allowed it to have extraordinary influence for a period of time, and I happen to think that's relevant in light of tonight's conversation. Given what's gone on in the news business at the moment with diminishing circulation, and media fragmentation, and shrinking audiences, I think that influence is a very good thing to have. And I think that civic journalism is clearly something that can take us there. P.M. was printed on relatively high-quality newsprint. It refused advertising. The Daily News, for a time, didn't have any advertising. We didn't quite refuse it, but we just didn't have any. It sold for a nickel a copy at a time when its competitors were going for two or three cents. Stories never jumped. P.M. relied very heavily on graphics. We all now think that it was USA Today that introduced diagrams and maps and all that other stuff, but actually it was P.M. in the '40s.

A Sense of Purpose

But what really distinguished P.M. was impassioned reporting and impassioned writing. The writers included people like Ernest Hemingway, James Thurber, I.F. Stone, Ben Hecht, Erskine Caldwell, Lerner; Dalton Trumbo covered features and Jimmy Cannon covered sports.

It was, most of all, a paper with a real sense of purpose.

The purpose was first stated in Ingersoll's prospectus to potential investors, and then it was repeated from time to time in the newspaper itself. This was the purpose: "We are against people who push other people around just for the fun of pushing." Now that's a purpose. It's not a marketing purpose. It's a purpose. "We are against people who push other people around just for the fun of pushing."

I guess I lean toward news organizations that are willing to define themselves that clearly. I think if civic journalism's sweeping goal is to rekindle a broad interest in civic life, the building blocks must include news organizations with a sharp, gutsy, locally defined, locally tailored, clearly articulated sense of purpose.

"Rethinking Philadelphia"

I want to talk for a few seconds about "Rethinking Philadelphia," which is our big adventure in civic journalism, if you don't count Beergate. Stop me if any of this sounds like I'm bragging, because, more than anybody, I know that "Rethinking Philadelphia" is just in its infancy and has accomplished very little.

If you know anything about Philadelphia, the city has a traditional low self-esteem, and it's well-warranted. It's the town where fans at the Vet booed Santa Claus and where the current mayor threw snowballs at him. It's a place where Frank Rizzo made the city a ghost town during his own bicentennial celebration by demanding that the National Guard be called out because commies were coming in to attack the tourists.

And all of you will remember this: Wilson Goode dropped a bomb on his own city, and not just on his own city but on the part of town where he had the most political support. So it's that kind of place.

Just a few weeks ago - you may have seen this on CNN - during the Phils' home opener, a brawl broke out between a group of sweet Catholic boys from Monsignor Bonner and another group from St. Joe's Prep and the game had to stop while the two opposing teams turned and watched the fight in the center field decks.

Against this kind of backdrop, The Daily News started with "Rethinking Philadelphia." It was, like most things at The Daily News, an accident. It started out as a story, and then a one-shot project, and then a campaign and now it's a permanent department. It's an ongoing regular department with its own department head and its own staff, just like the sports department, which at The Daily News is really saying something.

It's purpose really is to help Philadelphians imagine: "What if?" We're trying to get people in the Philadelphia suburbs and in the city to say, "What if?" What if this took place? What if that took place?

I wouldn't call it a civic journalism project in the more traditional sense. It's really not, clearly, about one topic. But it's an effort to mobilize people behind that idea of "What if?"

There have been a lot of critics in the newsroom, a lot of critics outside. The mayor called me right before this was about to run and said, "You've got to stop this. I hate it." And I said, "How could you hate it? You haven't read it yet." And he said, "I don't hate the story. I hate the name."

In a couple decades of management at The Daily News, this was the first time I ever got a call from anybody in authority seeking to change the name of a story. He had seen the logo promoting the next day's story and at the time he hated the idea that Philadelphia had to be rethought.

Over the course of time, he's become something of a believer in "Rethinking" content. So have the people in town. So have the people in the newsroom.

The content of "Rethinking Philadelphia" has had a lot to do with that, but also something that's really terribly important to all of us, and that's beer.

Let me back up and say that there are two writers for the Philadelphia papers covering beverages. A woman who is probably descended from the czars, who covers wine for The Inquirer. And Joe Sixpack covers beer for The Daily News.

Anyway, Joe was at Veterans Stadium, which is city-owned, and bought a glass of beer. He expected it to be warm. He expected it to be bad. And his experience as a beer drinker told him that this was not the advertised 18 ounces of beer. In fact, it was 16 ounces of beer for, I think, $4.75 and was billed as 18 ounces of beer.

So Joe goes on a tear with a lot of civic involvement. He had a lot of fans who really got invested in this story and we pounded away. There was a city council investigation. Underneath all of this there was a very smelly 15-year vending contract with the authorized vendor, which the aforementioned Wilson Goode cut many years ago.

I guess the best way to finish this story is to say that on opening day this year the concessionaire dropped the beer prices and is now serving the full 18 ounces of beer. So it was a great victory.

The meaning here for me is because of things like that, because we're willing to get very emotionally involved about topics the readers really care about, we found that there's a bit of a quid pro quo. That they are willing to get very seriously involved with some of the more serious topics we're dealing with in "Rethinking Philadelphia."

So, if I can plant one message here tonight, it's that there's not a huge distinction between those serious issues we deal with on one end and some of the more emotional issues that really touch people on another end.

Now I should tell you that on opening day, the fans cheered Joe. They wanted to give him a barstool. But our ethical code required that we give the barstool to charity. So Joe goes on, standing up, and drinking.

As I said before, I thought all three Batten Award winners here are marvelous winners. And I get a fair shot at looking at a lot of the civic journalism work from around the country and I feel that much of that is good as well.

But my nature requires me, I guess, to express a couple fears while we're here. Basically, I'm afraid that we're kidding ourselves about much of what we're calling civic journalism. We work some citizens in, and we congratulate ourselves on civic engagement that might or might not be happening.

And here is an even bigger fear. So much of what we view as civic journalism is intelligent, elegantly packaged - and utterly bloodless. Like the rest of the newspaper or the news report that surrounds it, there is no life to the work and even less humor.

We talk about civic engagement as if we really don't know what engagement means. If you say engagement to a journalist they think, Monitor vs. Merrimack or Battle of Bull Run. If you say engagement to me, or at least to the civilian in me, what I think about is (my wife) Debbie and I walking down the Mall in Washington in the springtime, arm in arm, a relationship with its share of passion, or more than its share of passion. That's engagement to me.

The straightaway journalist within each of us wants to pursue civic engagement as if it's an intellectual exercise, not a relationship. An engagement is an emotional state, whether you're talking about romance or really whether you're talking about citizen action. That's really why I dragged Beergate into the conversation.

Emotional Connections

Daily, what we're trying to do is connect emotionally with the readers. We try that on little stories that you might feel are trivial. We deal with it in stories - and Jan quoted the lead to that story. What was that line?

Will the scum who stole the 11-year-old child's wheelchair-accessible van please return it?

What we're striving for is a chain reaction. When The Daily News goes to the wall on an issue readers really understand and care about, say beer or the stolen van of a crippled child, we win a little piece of their hearts for the larger battles. If we invest more feeling in our work, and not just in the work we consider to be momentous, the citizenry might just take our serious work more seriously and perhaps move a little bit closer to action.

We can look at the cream of civic journalism, the Batten Award-winning work, and feel very good about the way civic journalism is evolving. But I'm worried about us overstating the successes. And I remain concerned that the criticism the movement has faced in its early years will make it safe, and the safety will make it hollow.

So what do I wish for civic journalism? First, that it be practiced as much with the heart as with the head. That's a very difficult thing for us as journalists. Even when we say we're doing it, I'm not sure that the reader would perceive it. So I guess I'd ask the journalists in the room tonight to really read your work or view your work through that filter. Are we practicing it as much with the heart as with the head?

Second, I wish that we understand we cannot be austere and unconnected on one hand, and somehow promote connectedness on the other.

Third, that we quit seeing civic journalism as something that can be contained in a project. It's a daily obligation. This might be quite appropriate now, but five years out or 10 years out, I hope you can give it to a newspaper for its work for the year, not for a project.

And fourth, I wish that those news organizations with a conscience actually behave like we have got one.

The ongoing upheaval in the news business has brought caution and massive self-doubt. This isn't particularly good for either the news media or for the prospect of promoting greater civic engagement.

What does the average citizen think about this? I don't know, but this is my guess: Quit all the agonizing. Use your influence. Use it constructively. In death, Jim Batten has taken on a saintliness he did not have in life. Thank goodness. He was sensitive and visionary, but he also had plenty of nerve. His embrace of civic journalism was not an uncertain act or the act of a Boy Scout. He firmly believed that the press had the moral capacity to re-energize community and democracy. And he believed that the press had the moral imperative to do so.

I'm with him.

I'm hoping now that nobody in the room will tell anybody else that I'm going to quote from a German philosopher. But one of my favorite quotes is from Goethe. A couple centuries ago he said:

"It all amounts to this. In order to do something, you must be something."


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