Civic Catalyst Newsletter
Spring 2002

New Hunter-Gatherers Assemble the News

By Jan Schaffer
Pew Center
Executive Director

Around the country, we are seeing some new forms of journalism beginning to emerge. It's civic in entirely different ways from traditional civic journalism. Engaging in ways that civic journalists couldn't have imagined only a decade ago.

It is a journalism that seeks to involve citizens very actively in public choices by doing - not just listening or watching or reading. And it is developing some new entry points to help people get news and information - some fun and provocative entry points.

We are venturing into an Era of Interactive Journalism. And it foreshadows exciting potential for informing our citizenry and engaging them in local, national and international issues in compelling ways.

More than streaming video or audio, this new interactivity can help people compute a tax, much like New Hampshire Public Radio's groundbreaking "Tax Calculator" did. It can also help them match up with a political candidate, calculate a cancer risk, test themselves for racial bias, express their own development choices - or better understand the consequences of choices that their elected leaders have to make.

As we see in this edition of the Catalyst, WXXI in Rochester, NY, has built Redistricting 2002, a game to help people understand the tradeoffs in "drawing" new congressional districts. Tampa Bay Online's Crimetracker helps individuals pinpoint crime in neighborhoods where they work or live. In Everett, WA, and Myrtle Beach, SC, clickable maps are engaging ordinary people in city planning issues.

"This is great for citizen involvement and citizen understanding," says Glenn Thomas, founder of a Seattle adver-gaming firm, Smashing Ideas Inc. In the past year, a few news organizations, with Pew Center funding, have asked the company to help them turn these interactive techniques into news tools.

Thomas views games and other exercises as "a great way to get information to people in a way that helps them understand the impact of their choices."

The appetite for more interactivity in news seems to be building for both news consumers and news deliverers.

Consider the newsrooms. In a Pew Center poll released last summer, nine out of 10 of the nation's newspaper editors said the future of the news business depends on more interactivity with readers. Seven out of 10 were not happy with their level of interactivity - even as they cited scores of fledgling efforts, from e-mail to town halls, that have blossomed in recent years.

In traditional models of journalism, the reporters have been the hunter-gatherers. They have tracked down a collection of information and assembled it into a story. With the input of editors and producers, they decided what to leave in, what to cut out, what deserved air time or news hole.

The New Hunter-Gatherers

Increasingly, we see members of the public wanting a role in this hunting and gathering process.

They are less content to passively consume news and information, preferring instead to participate in actively collecting it. In a very real way, they are engaging in an internal exercise, a process of composing their own stories.

This was most visible in the aftermath of Sept. 11: People would read their newspaper, tune in NPR, visit CNN.com or the washingtonpost.com - but they would also visit BBC.com and perhaps theonion.com and read e-mails from friends.

Think of it as a process whereby, people, in essence, are co-authoring their own news - building the stories they believe, their internal narratives, by assembling components of information they are gathering from many different places.

The challenge now, for journalists, is how do we enable this process, using our core journalism values? How do we help construct the building blocks that will aid this process of personal story making? How do we move the news experience beyond a one-way pipeline model, so that citizens can interact with information in ways that help them glean new knowledge built on trustworthy frameworks?

Interactive entry points are a key component of future news. They won't supplant - but will supplement - traditional documentaries, narratives and news stories, delivering an overlay of more personal participation in the process.

There is a need to develop some fresh ways to inform the public. There is a need to help many traditional journalists break out of some journalistic conventions that the public finds meaningless. There is a need to enhance the public's understanding of important issues. And there is a need to give the public additional entry points.

Civic journalists who were in the vanguard of building interactive entry points early in the decade - with issues-based polls, town hall meetings, focus groups, book clubs, pizza parties and action teams - are now crafting yet-better ways to involve the public more dynamically in public decisions.

In the process, they just might recapture some citizens who have abandoned more traditional journalism by hooking them with more contemporary tools.






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