Civic Catalyst Newsletter
Getting Down and Dirty with the Critics
I appear before you this
morning resolved to be more contentious on the subject of
A few weeks ago, at a meeting of the American
Society of Newspaper Editors' Change Committee in Columbia,
S.C., Jay Rosen challenged editors to be more assertive in
defending civic journalism from the recent outbreak of
vitriolic, inflammatory, unfair, and mostly inaccurate
attacks from the journalism establishment.
For many reasons, some of us who advocate
civic journalism have opted in the past to let the criticism
slide. No sense getting into a fight with our profession's
But there are several good reasons to step up
to the recent challenges. For one, leaving the field to the
critics hurts our ability to take civic journalism into the
nation's journalism schools. For another, it makes it harder
to discuss the subject in our own newsrooms where young,
ambitious journalists look up to and emulate the people they
believe embody the profession's noblest values.
For those reasons and others, it's time to
get down and dirty with the critics.
The title of today's session is "Civic
Journalism: An Elite Conspiracy or Better Journalism?"
From where I sit, it seems as if public
journalism is being victimized by the media elite. It is
striking to me, as I travel around the country talking on the
subject, that there is so much less debate over civic
journalism in the South, the Midwest (the crucible of civic
journalism) and even the Far West.
But the big guns from Washington, New York
and Boston -- and the big gun wannabees -- are the folks who
have targeted journalists like me, and like you.
Yet they are the journalists most removed
from newspapers like mine, from communities like mine.
They don't read my paper. They never before
concerned themselves with my journalistic values or
practices. They don't know or care about the problems facing
my community. Or yours.
And I don't expect them to.
I don't know how to define civic journalism
for a national newspaper like The New York Times, The
Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post. As
far as I'm concerned, how or even whether these concepts are
embraced by Times, Journal or Post
editors is their affair.
But I do care how civic journalism is
defined, defended and ultimately, embraced by editors of
community papers like my own.
If I distill the message of the critics--not
the specific criticism but their essential message -- it is
this: Traditional journalism, having been invented at some
time in the past, ought to be immune to change,
experimentation and innovation.
Challenge the orthodoxy, as defined by
Pulitzer-obsessed editors -- many of whose papers are bleeding
circulation, by the way -- and you somehow cross the line into
But when did journalism become a fixed
science? The best American journalism, and the most
innovative and exciting journalism, always has come from
thoughtful editors viewing the room, as it were, from a
different place at the table and exercising their best
professional judgment. There is no heresy in that.
And why, as a journalist engaged in this
grand experiment, must I devalue the effort and the intent by
apologizing for elements of that experiment that have gone
awry? Some civic journalists have engaged in practices that
make me uncomfortable. But that doesn't invalidate the
How many investigative reporters have been
called upon to abandon their journalism because Michael
Gartner's "Dateline" reporters blew up a truck?
Were the nation's best feature writers sent to a corner in
shame when the Post's Janet Cooke made up a story
out of whole cloth?
And did our profession survive both scandals?
Just as all of us will survive the inevitable
lapses of some civic journalists.
Now, having taken off on our critics, I must
also point out that part of the problem is of our own making.
So much of civic journalism has been defined
in project terms or focused on fixed-time election efforts.
That makes it easier for the critics to separate civic
journalism from the journalistic mainstream. In the last
year, as we've struggled to understand how civic journalism
informs our every-day work at The Gazette, I've come
to see that our efforts are totally compatible with so-called
traditional journalism. In fact, civic journalism brings an
essential dimension to all that we do, another layer of
richness and complexity to everything from night cops to arts
and entertainment coverage.
Which leads me to this last point concerning
our own culpability. I think we have been too quick to seek
accord with some of our critics by agreeing that civic
journalism is "just good ol' fashioned journalism"
freshened for the '90s.
That's a wonderful way to dismiss the most
provocative elements of the experiment. Implicit in that
patronizing and dismissive statement is the assumption that
all of us either have been doing just that sort of good old
journalism or are capable of doing it if we decide, someday,
maybe, that it's important.
I think it's important to use the language of
civic journalism in defending the experiment; it forces the
debate that is so necessary to move journalism forward.
I don't see civic journalism as an elite
conspiracy. I see it as populist journalism, born in the
heartland, nurtured in the South and Midwest and growing out
of the hopes, fears, and dreams of journalists like
me -- editors of small and mid-size newspapers struggling to
connect with their communities in more meaningful ways.
It isn't heresy. And it doesn't deserve the
hack criticism we've seen in recent weeks.
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