Don't Stop There! Five Adventures in Civic Journalism
The Good Community Breaks New Ground
Ron Davis left the Springfield News-Leader at 2:30 p.m., Oct. 11, 1995, along with most of the rest of his colleagues. Executive editor Randy Hammer had cleared the newsroom, declaring the escalation in the juvenile crime rate in Springfield, Missouri, an all-hands story.
This story didn't break, it oozed. But Hammer took the approach usually reserved for a plane crash or earthquake, throwing all the energy and resources of the newsroom into a single, no-holds-barred, one-day examination of the hours of 3 to 7 p.m. The hours of the biggest increase in crime. The hours when many teenagers are home with no supervision.
Thirty-seven reporters and photographers were hitting the street at exactly the same time, together drawing a portrait of a typical day in the life of Springfield's teenagers. Davis had very specific marching orders: Find the "Acid Tunnel," the little-known gathering place of Springfield's most feckless teens; the place they went to smoke pot and spray paint nihilistic poem fragments on the cement walls of a storm-water drain that ran under the interstate.
In reporting for the News-Leader's month-long series on the growing juvenile crime problem, Davis had heard about the Acid Tunnel from high school teachers, guidance counselors and police officers. But nobody knew where it was.
Davis was sweating bullets. Hammer had told him, "Find it or don't come back." Davis pulled into the Git-N-Go to get a pack of cigarettes. 2:40 p.m. Everyone working on the News-Leader project had to be in place in 20 minutes. The Springfield police had given him an approximate location for the Acid Tunnel but he knew it wasn't right . . . knew it in his gut, where reporters like Davis draw their inspiration.
He walked around to the side of the convenience store to throw away the cellophane wrapper from his Marlboro Lights. Two kids were hanging out. One wore his hair short except for a tuft pulled into a ponytail bouncing off the side of his head. Davis looked and a new feeling filled his gut. He tossed the wrapper and approached them. "Hey, can I hang out with you guys for a while? I just wanta hang out with you for a couple hours."
This, Davis says, is when he began to believe "there is a God."
"Okay," the ponytailed one answered. "Ya wanna go to the Acid Tunnel?"
3-7 p.m: When kids Are kids
More than 30 stories appeared in the special eight-page section, produced on deadline, that was tucked into the next day's paper. On Oct. 12, anyone in Springfield could find out what dozens of teenagers had done from 3 to 7 p.m. the day before. They could read about 14-year-old Sean Williamson playing video games at the mall; and 17-year-old "Jeff" driving around smoking pot.
And they could read about the boy with the distinctive hairstyle -- his nickname was "Sin"-- and his buddy, "Melt," scrawling on the walls of the Acid Tunnel:
Melt and Sin feel at home in the Acid Tunnel. In some ways, it is their home.
"I ain't got no family at all," Sin says, "except for my little brother. My mom don't give a damn. My father don't give a damn. My grandmother don't give a damn. I've been living on my own since I was 13. . ."
"It's all because we don't dress like Ward Cleaver," Melt snorts, his intense green eyes flashing with mirth. "They won't let me back in school. So what?"
Sin picks up a half-empty can of black spray paint and starts to dot the walls with his tag.
More than 20 reporters had bylines and there were 13 reports from "special correspondents," ranging in age from 9 to 17.
The "3-7" section was just one installment of a civic journalism project called "The Good Community." Spurred by the community's fears for its children in the wake of an increase in juvenile crime, the paper set out to examine the youth of Springfield and start a conversation about what the community was doing, and could do, to build a better future for them.
Hammer estimates that some 2,000 stories have run under "The Good Community" sig in the two and a half years since the project started, including a three-week series of sweeping profiles of Springfield teenagers. As part of the project, the paper even sponsored a highly successful "Good Community Fair" that drew 7,000 people.
A young graffiti artist decorates the walls of the "Acid Tunnel," a storm-water conduit in northeast Springfield where teenagers hang out. The 18-year-old, who calls himself "Sin," was one of the dozens of teens captured by reporters and photographers in the News-Leader's 3-7 special section in October 1995.
The "3-7" special report demonstrated at the outset the depth of the paper's commitment to the project, in terms of both resources and space in the paper. It also represented the sense of urgency Hammer brought to the task and his willingness to take risks. Both contributed to the staff's enthusiasm for the project.
Davis's colleague, Jennifer Portman, also remembers feeling a little nervous leaving the newsroom on Oct. 11. But, she recalls, "That's what made it so much fun. No one had any idea if it would be a complete bust. The kids might have been boring. But the kids brought everything to life. Everyone found a little nugget. Some were big like (Davis finding) a whole underworld no one knew existed. And sometimes it was just something neat some kid said."
Springfield's Boston Common
Randy Hammer arrived in Springfield in the summer of 1995, unsettling times for the Ozarks community. Although it was still one of the safest small cities in America -- "a place to raise a family not a fuss," as one slogan put it -- there had been a 20 percent increase in the crime rate. A Chicago gang had tried (unsuccessfully) to infiltrate the local drug trade, leading to a spike in violent crime, particularly among teenagers.
In April, Southwestern Missouri State University (SMSU) had sponsored a three-day conference on urban violence that had sparked widespread community discussion. Both SMSU and the local private college, Drury, were following up with speakers on crime and youth. In addition, some 30 community leaders had begun meeting informally to discuss the problem.
Hammer had come to the News-Leader with a strong desire to make it, in his words, "the Boston Common of the community; the place people go to have serious conversations about serious issues." Even as a newcomer, Hammer could see that the increase in juvenile crime was the serious issue in Springfield.
"I was in a good position," says Hammer. "Sometimes if you're in a place too long, you get into your groove and you don't really hear anymore. But I was listening."
The News-Leader produced an eight-page special section, on deadline, exploring what Springfield teenagers do in a typical day between 3 and 7 p.m. Virtually every editorial employee at the paper participated. "No one had any idea if it would be a complete bust," recalls one reporter. "But the kids brought everything to life."
Hammer had a series of meetings with different community members -- over breakfast, pizza at the paper, visiting different churches each Sunday. He joined the ad hoc civic group that was discussing the problem.
"We did jump into (the project). We saw we had an opportunity. We started planning in September and launched it in October, but we spent the summer listening to people so when we actually got down to planning, it hit us over the head that this is what we need to do. From listening to people, it came together pretty easily."
"The Good Community" series started Oct. 1, 1995 and ran every day for four weeks, 28 days straight. Each week had a theme. Weeks one and two - themed "Where do we stand?" and "How did we get here?" -- explored the sources of violence: drugs, weapons, media images and bad home situations. Week three looked at success stories: people and organizations working with teenagers in a positive way. The final week, "Building the Good Community," told of national and local programs that might serve as models for improving the juvenile crime situation in Springfield.
As part of the project, Hammer sent reporters and photographers to Wichita and Little Rock -- similar-sized cities in neighboring states where crime had escalated very quickly in the early '90's. Years later, this is one of the things that people remember most about the series.
Brian Fogle, a local bank official, says those stories were key to raising community awareness about what was at stake: "Here's this community that used to be safe and clean, and here's what happened to it, and you can make the next step yourself. That is, here's Springfield that's always been nice, but here's what it could become if we don't get involved."
It was also early in this first series that Hammer devised the "3-7" project. As part of the planning process, a News-Leader reporter phoned criminal justice professor James Fox of Northeastern University. Fox was scheduled to speak at Drury College about juvenile crime smack in the middle of the project and the paper wanted to do an advance story on his remarks. Fox said he would be talking about the stunning national increase in crimes committed between 3 and 7 p.m. Hammer decided that his reporters would blanket the community during those hours -- on the very day Fox was speaking.
That gave the News-Leader two weeks to plan and execute the special section. There was some significant skepticism.
Kate Marymont, the News-Leader's managing editor, says she had some "early, grave reservations" about the whole direction Hammer was moving. She recalls private conversations in which she asked Hammer, "Where the hell are you taking us? At the expense of what other things? What will we have to give up? We don't have unlimited resources."
"3-7" looked particularly daunting but Hammer would not be deterred. "We do this every time there's an election," he insisted. "We do it almost every Friday night in sports."
"Sometimes if you're in a place too long, you get into your groove and you don't really hear anymore. But I was listening."
-- Randy Hammer
Hammer says he convinced the staff they could do it "and we did. We were able to get all the other news covered and still did this, and we had one hell of a newspaper and a really great section that I think opened a lot of eyes. And we had a lot of fun doing it."
Marymont agrees the "3-7" section was a great success but she says that to do "The Good Community" projects on an ongoing basis, the paper has had to sacrifice some of its daily news coverage. "We have a finite news hole and a finite reporting and editing staff. These were projects of considerable heft and we aren't able to layer them on and do them on top of everything else. We had to make some decisions and set some priorities."
Marymont, however, says she has come to believe that any sacrifices have been worth the benefits. "It has added an element that has really helped us a lot and helped the community a lot, and I think that was for the greater good. If we couldn't staff every zoning and planning and committee meeting, so be it."
Hammer wanted the News-Leader staff producing powerful stories, but he also strongly felt that, to create a genuine conversation in the community, citizens must have a voice in the paper, too. So each day in October 1995, as part of "The Good Community" series, the paper ran a guest column called "One Voice."
The guest columnists ran the gamut from high school students to a high school principal, from doctors and ministers to recovering drug addicts, each with a story or an idea about how to build a good community.
The News-Leader found that some teenagers turned to mischief, or worse, because there simply was nothing else to do during the critical hours of 3 to 7 p.m. As part of the package, reporters looked at activities that kept kids out of trouble.
In addition, Hammer reassigned assistant editorial page editor Sarah Overstreet to become an ombudsman for the month. At the outset of the project, she wrote a piece explaining "public journalism" and urging readers to call, fax or
e-mail their impressions and ideas about the series. Overstreet says she got four or five calls a day. Some had suggestions that the paper pursued as stories. Some became "One Voice" columnists.
Editorial page editor Robert Leger caught the spirit and proposed commissioning a community editorial board to take over the Saturday editorial page. Leger confesses the idea "was partly self- defense." With Overstreet detached to the project, Leger was hoping to ease his workload. As it turned out, Leger says, it was even more work but it was a tremendous addition to the paper. The groups of citizens who got together to do the page brought fresh thinking.
"The design of the page had to change to accommodate what they were doing," says Leger. "One group had a guy who did his own editorial cartoons. So it was more than putting stuff on a template.
"(Another group) had a neat idea -- I had to steal it -- they had a list of things you could do to get involved in the community and they asked if we could put a dotted line around it instead of the normal box, to make it easy to cut out. So they came up with some creative ideas."
Joining with Other Media
Marci Burdick was not new to Springfield. She'd been news director of the ratings powerhouse, KYTV, the NBC affiliate, for seven years. Like Hammer, she was picking up on the community's growing unease with the juvenile crime problem.
As she puts it, "When I got the calendar (of events for October) and saw four speakers sponsored by four separate entities all on the subject of juvenile crime, you didn't have to be a genius to realize a lot of people were concerned about this."
"It has added
an element that has really helped us a lot and helped the
community a lot, and I think that was for the greater good.
If we couldn't staff every zoning and planning
and committee meeting, so be it."
-- Kate Marymont
While Burdick was planning the station's coverage of the topic, she got a call from Hammer. He wanted to get together with all the news media in town -- TV, radio, even other print media -- and explain to them exactly what the paper was going to do in October. He would share all his budget lines for the month, and they were welcome to beat him if they wished, but he believed the project was of such great concern to Springfield that it should reach more than just newspaper readers.
Burdick says she was immediately interested. But there was serious trepidation on the part of her staff and some newspaper reporters. "This had never been done before," Burdick points out. "They asked, 'Why do we want to let them know what we're working on? What's the point of this?' "
So Burdick and Hammer got their reporters together over dinner at a local brew pub. "We talked about how this had come together," she recalls, "and we explained that we thought we could have a bigger impact working jointly but separately. We were not going to vet each other's stories -- we'd be doing separate stories -- but we'd work cooperatively. This was a good issue to set aside competitive concerns for."
By the time Burdick and Hammer picked up the check, she says, staff concerns were allayed.
Often, television partners in civic journalism projects have trouble making project stories visual, but Burdick says the topic of juvenile crime offered great visual opportunities. Her crews rode along with cops who police juveniles. They got some crime video but they also had stories about programs to keep kids out of trouble -- models from other communities and programs in Springfield. And they had their own version of "3 - 7."
The two other local stations ran stories linked to "The Good Community" too. So did local radio and the SMSU college paper.
"There was no way you could live in this community and not be aware of what went on that October," says Springfield businessman Rob Baird. "It was bombardment."
The Good Community Fair
All told, October 1995 was an extraordinary month for Springfield. With all the city's media promoting the guest speakers at SMSU and Drury, other groups tied in panel discussions and speakers. Rob Baird chuckles, remembering, "We had sociologists and academics coming in speaking about public values, and they were treated like rock stars."
After stories showed kids at loose ends after school because a lack of volunteers limits programs, local agencies working with young people began getting offers of help.
There was standing room only at the inaugural Good Community Fair, held at Springfield's Drury College in January 1996.
A local bank -- now part of NationsBank -- called the Springfield Neighborhood Coalition and offered to provide $10,000 for a Good Community Loan Fund. Brian Fogle, community relations manager, says the money was for those expenses that can make or break a struggling family: "People," in his words, "living hand to mouth and, for the lack of $400 to fix a furnace, might find themselves in a downward spiral."
Hammer and many of the civic leaders with whom he'd been meeting sensed an opportunity opening up. They wanted to seize on the community's budding enthusiasm.
"It became obvious we'd gotten people's attention in a way that doesn't normally happen," says Hammer. "So I just kept thinking: 'What do we do? What do we do?' We'd done a health fair so I just thought: Why not a civic fair?"
Hammer says his idea was to get all Springfield's non-profit agencies together in one place and let people interested in getting involved find out how to help. However, he says, the civic leaders in the juvenile crime ad hoc group were generally skeptical. "They said it would take months or a year to get that together. I knew it wouldn't have the same impact six months later. People had a sense of urgency and we needed to jump on that."
Hammer says he knew his own staff could turn it around very quickly -- reporters, after all, are used to tight deadlines. So, the News-Leader took on the project. They gave themselves a month.
Editor Louise Wahl spearheaded the planning. She arranged for space in Drury College's student center. Then she contacted the agencies to ask if they wanted to participate. She expected perhaps 40 responses. By the fair date, 120 agencies had asked for booths.
"The Good Community" tried to hook up citizens with organizations that needed their help. The newspaper ran lists of community groups early on. Later, the media partners sponsored a "Good Community Fair," where the groups could introduce themselves to potential
Wahl says she scrambled to design a floor plan to accommodate everyone, paying attention to details as mundane as who needed electricity and taking care not to put the Christian coalition next to the AIDS project. The Boy Scouts asked to join at the last minute and Wahl told them "We'd used every table we could find and filled up every corner of the room. They said, 'We'll pitch a tent.'"
A political reporter handled parking logistics, including running shuttle buses from lots to the student center. "There wasn't really a model to follow," says Wahl. "We just did it by the seat of our pants." Then the paper and KYTV featured prominent stories about it.
The Good Community Fair was a stunning success: 7,000 people jammed in on an unseasonably warm Saturday in January. Together, they pledged 13,000 hours of community service. It was a magical moment for everyone involved.
Was it journalism? "No. It's not," concedes Wahl. But she says she found it more satisfying in some ways. "You get into journalism because you think you can change the world and make it better. But, no, you're just writing about change. This was a way to actually make change happen, not just observe and write about it. I got my hands dirty and accomplished something for a really good cause."
Formalizing the Good Community
SMSU professor Lloyd Young had planned the three-day urban violence conference back in April 1995 that first got the community talking about its crime problem. He'd been calling the informal meetings of community leaders to continue the discussion ever since.
After seeing the success of the Good Community Fair, he decided the group could do more to spur community action, and he decided it was time to make the group a bit more formal.
With the help of facilitators from the National Civic League, the members attended a day and a half retreat. There they named their group the "Good Community Committee." They chose three areas of community concern to initiate conversations and serve as a catalyst for community action: youth issues, diversity and economic well-being.
One of the group's first successes was the creation of the "Summer Sizzler," a series of evening events, sponsored by various groups, to keep teens off the street. But the group was soon spending more time talking about the grown-up issues on their agenda -- economic development and revitalizing downtown.
Hammer decided it was time for another mega-project that would return the focus to youth. He devised a series of articles called the "Class of 2000."
The Class of 2000
As school began in September 1996, Hammer assembled six teams of reporters and photographers. Each team was to select two high school freshmen. They were given four months to follow their students around and chronicle the teenagers' lives.
In January 1997, the News-Leader ran a three-week series, with each of the first 12 parts devoted to an in-depth examination of one teen's life. The final week looked at issues the teens were facing. The overall effect was a breathtaking portrait of what it is to be a teenager today.
Selecting the students took nearly a month. Each reporter went out -- mostly to the five local high schools -- and hung around for a few days, watching kids to see who might make an interesting subject. They were looking for a cross-section so they tried to select kids who represented different segments of the community -- an honor student-athlete overachiever, a class clown from a rural area, a cheerleader, a single mother. Then the reporters had to get the parents' approval. Often that proved impossible and the reporter had to move to a second or even third choice.
Once the choices were made, the reporters spent as much time with the teenagers as their schedules allowed. The reporters still covered their regular beats but they managed to get together with their subjects once or twice a week, attending classes, going to basketball games, hanging out at the mall, or staying at home with their families.
A relationship between reporter and subject developed that reporter Lisa Wingo says was unique in her experience. "I can't think of another story where I would have gotten so personally involved. I was telling their story, but I also came to see myself as their guardian and their friend."
Wingo wrote the story of Shawna Stayce, a 17-year-old single mother. Shawna was a freshman at an alternative school for girls with children when Wingo started the project but she dropped out over the course of the reporting.
Wingo wrote of Shawna's ambitions early in the project to get her diploma, a job, maybe even go on to become a lawyer -- and of the difficulties that led her to drop out of school and care for her infant daughter full time:
Child care is a routine Shawna must accept though she remembers pre-baby days when she could stay in bed, curled up under the covers for hours.
"I used to be a heavy sleeper and I had dreams," she says. "Now that I had a baby, I don't dream no more."
Though Shawna's story was particularly poignant, each of the 12 stories revealed aspects of modern teenage life that touched reporters, editors and readers alike.
Shawna Stayce plays with her infant daughter, Cheyenne, in the fall of 1996. Shawna was one of 12 teenagers profiled in the News-Leader's "Class of 2000" project.
There was Shawn Rucker. At 15, he was the "man of the house," protector and role model for a household of women and children.
There was Cheyenne Imlay asserting her individuality with thrift-store clothes and felt-tip markered lips.
There was Kristy Flores, who spent most of the project grounded and failed most of her classes.
There was Grant Baldwin, honor student, devout Christian and child of a broken home.
There was Michael Tilton, who put tremendous pressure on himself to keep straight A's, play four sports and help around the house.
Reporting the stories over time and keeping the project on track required enormous teamwork. Wahl was the project editor. She says the teams met every week to make sure no one was getting behind. Often the photographers would bring pictures. "The meetings were real motivational for everyone, too, because we were getting such cool stuff," she says.
Sometimes the stuff they were getting created ethical dilemmas. The teenagers, not comprehending the consequences of letting reporters into their lives, confided things that were potentially damaging to their relationships with parents and even to their own futures.
Reporter Martha Carr, for instance, discovered Michael Tilton was downloading recipes for making cherrybombs off the Internet. He and his friends were planning to set off some small explosives for Halloween. She says she was unsure how to handle the information.
"The purpose of this project was to help our readers understand what it's like to be a 15-year-old today, to get inside their heads, to remember what it was like, but also to learn all the new factors they're dealing with. And here is this bright, beautiful kid downloading instructions for (cherry) bombs."
She felt it was an important part of the story but she also knew she could ruin everything Tilton had worked so hard to achieve. She brought it up at one of the weekly meetings and touched off an earnest debate about how to proceed.
It was Hammer who was the most adamant that the reporters leave out any potentially damaging information about the teenagers. "We felt uncomfortable but these kids had really opened up to us," he says. "It would not have been fair to burn them. They trusted us. It would not have been right to get them in trouble."
There was some material that was borderline and Hammer says, if there was a question, "we showed the kid the story and asked how they felt about it. Everyone said, 'This is good; this is me.' Not a single one asked for any change. A couple of parents did see things they were upset about but we just worked those things out."
It was a different way to run the project. But reporter Wingo says the special nature of the relationships that developed with the teenagers led reporters to break "all kinds of normal rules." Of Shawna, for instance, she says, "Here was this young girl with a baby and no resources. I ran to the pharmacy for her if the baby got sick. I babysat." And Wingo says she feels proud of Shawna now. Shawna works at Piccadilly Cafeteria and lives with her daughter, Cheyenne, and a new boyfriend, who, Shawna says, loves Cheyenne as if she were his own.
Shawna remembers the series, and her part in it, as a good experience. "I just thought it was neat," she says. There was an outpouring of support for her -- in letters, radio call-in shows, and even from customers who were virtual strangers -- after her story ran. "Probably because they saw how I was struggling with a kid and trying to go to school," Shawna guesses. "It's hard to have a baby. And that's what the paper showed. It's not easy."
During the series, Wingo felt protective of Shawna. Some of the teenager's history was not very pretty. So Wingo left it out.
"And long after the story ran I wondered if I'd told the truth. It was not the whole truth. I omitted some facts to show a greater truth -- the real life struggles of a young mother in this community."
The stories resonated through Springfield like a tolling bell.
"School guidance counselors would cut them out each day and hang them up," says Wahl. "The police were saving them. Internally, (the project has) been a model for how to do a big project with a lot of people involved. Externally, it fostered some change."
There are more services for pregnant teens in Springfield, the school board is expanding day care in schools and improving security. "They're bringing kids to the table more, including kids in the process," says Wahl.
But perhaps the series' biggest success was simply raising community awareness of what life is really like for teenagers. Even Wahl, editing the series, was surprised by what it showed.
"They're expected to function like adults so much sooner. Issues I dealt with in college, these kids are dealing with in high school. They've got to get a good education so they can get a good job -- they're worried about being downsized already. They're wondering whether to have sex at 14. Their family situations are so much more complicated. They're freshmen in high school but they have the weight of the world on their shoulders."
Hammer says he found readers "got caught up in the series as though it were a soap opera . . . I had parents come up to me at various community events and they'd thank me for that series."
Sniffing Out a Drug Problem
The Avon Ladies of the Ozarks know how to sniff out a methamphetamine lab by its odor. They are helping law enforcement crack down on illegal manufacturing sites. What is the connection to "The Good Community?" There is no direct connection.
However, the Avon Ladies' olfactory abilities are a result of the News-Leader's decision to get involved in the community and the skill it developed in combining community engagement with good, sound journalism.
Let's start with the journalism -- a chilling two-part series that ran in March 1998 exposing how the Springfield area had become a methamphetamine center through a latter-day moonshining process. In 1997, according to the series, police busted 455 meth labs in Missouri -- a third of the nation's total. Many of them had been set up in the kitchens and bathrooms of city apartments and rural shacks, thanks to a man named Bob Paillet, a meth scholar of sorts.
In the book stacks at Southwest Missouri State, Paillet discovered a recipe for "Nazi dope," a chemical German leaders gave their soldiers during World War II to keep appetites down and energy high. Reporter Laura Menner related how Paillet fiddled around with the recipe until he could make meth with a handful of easily obtainable ingredients and a simple cooker. Ether was the only uncommon element. And that is where the Avon ladies come in.
"If we start a project on something like meth, of course we're going to look for those elements that empower the public and help them find solutions."
-- Kate Marymont
"As we were doing the reporting," says managing editor Marymont, "I was having a meeting with the county prosecutor and the police chief and asking what the newspaper could do to help address this problem. They said education. What we can do is use our powerful forum to educate people."
The problem was, police wanted people to know what ether smelled like because that was the one way law-abiding people might be able to figure out that their neighbors are cooking meth. The newspaper couldn't convey the smell. So Marymont proposed that the paper sponsor three seminars where people could go and smell ether and be trained in what to do if they detected it.
This time, it was Hammer's turn to be a skeptic. "I thought, 'Do you really believe people are going to go and listen to a seminar on illegal meth labs?' " But he gave the go-ahead and the paper announced the seminars in the series.
"We limited them to 50 people each because we wanted to pass around the ingredients," says Marymont. "So we started with three (seminars). At last count, we'd had 28.
"The Department of Agriculture contacted us and said 'We've got Ag inspectors out in rural areas. They ought to know what to look for.' So we had a seminar for Ag inspectors."
And, yes, Avon asked for a seminar for its sales force, still going door to door in many places.
Police report the number of phone-in tips has gone up, says Marymont, "and more importantly, the quality of the tips. They're much more knowledgeable."
Perhaps there is no greater demonstration that civic journalism has taken hold of the News-Leader than the fact that Marymont, initially a skeptic, took 100 percent control of the meth project.
"What it did was take the lessons learned from the more formal civic journalism exercises," says Marymont, "and we're now bringing it down to a much more practical application in our regular coverage. I think we are moving from civic journalism being just the monster projects that take months and zillions of man hours into being just how we do our business.
"If we start a project on something like meth, of course we're going to look for those elements that empower the public and help them find solutions. It's becoming kind of a way of life for us, which I think is a wonderful evolution of civic journalism."
The Daily Challenge
Hammer says his big challenge now is to infuse the News-Leader's daily report with the civic values of "The Good Community" project stories -- a goal he believes he's getting closer to.
"If you're going to talk about engaging citizens, you've got to do it day to day to day. The big projects get people's attention and get recognition but this is not about winning awards. ("The Good Community" won Missouri Press Association and Inland Press Association awards and First Place for Reader Involvement from Gannett.)
News-Leader editor Hammer says his goal now is moving civic journalism into the daily paper on a consistent basis. Sometimes, he concedes, reporters fall back on a "get the good quotes and let it run" formula. But he was pleased with the way the paper handled this daily story. The lead story about the AT&T, TCI merger, he said, "answered all my questions right at the top."
"It's about creating better connections between the community and its government and between the newspaper and the community. We've been fairly consistent about moving (those principles) into the daily paper."
To illustrate, Hammer pointed to the front page of that very day's News-Leader. It was June 18, 1998, and the lead story about the merger of AT&T and TCI was stripped across the top.
"You see that story?" he said. "That story answered all my questions right at the top." The story, by reporter Ron Sylvester, led with the services and changes in service customers could likely expect as a result of the merger and detailed the financial aspects of the merger further down.
"This story told me everything I needed to know about what this means to me," said Hammer. "That's what people want to know: What does it mean to me?"
The community of Springfield, Hammer adds, is holding him to his goal of a more civic daily report. "They confront us," he says. "They tell us, 'One moment you're doing well-reasoned thoughtful stories, then you go back to the old way of doing things that does nothing to help people have a dialogue or understand issues.' "
Hammer concedes, they are right, at times. "It's one thing to do a project, but when you've got a story you've got to run tomorrow, you resort back to 'get the good quotes and let it run.' "
Hammer finds this particular criticism most intriguing. "They didn't like some stories . . . but not because the stories were unfair, biased or inaccurate. It was because the stories were traditional.
"When we kicked off 'The Good Community' project, we had written columns that told people . . . this was a new way of doing things. There was only one thing I didn't think of: That people would want us to do this kind of journalism all the time."
Democracy is messy
Three years after it started, "The Good Community" continues. Crime is down in Springfield and public involvement is up.
Plans for the 1998 Good Community Fair -- the third one -- are for an outdoor event in the Town Square and a cleanup of Jordan Creek, which runs near downtown.
That's not to say every undertaking is a huge success. The Good Community Committee tried to initiate a discussion of those values it considered the community would want to pass along to its children.
The committee surveyed more than 1,300 people in Springfield and came up with six key values: respect, honesty, responsibility, compassion, education and tolerance. But at the community congress held to discuss these values, members of the religious right demanded that tolerance be removed from the list. It was, they maintained, a code word for homosexuality. The committee was forced to agree that since it clearly was not a shared value it should be removed.
The reporter who covered the story called it "an embarrassment." But Hammer is more philosophical.
"Democracy is dirty. It's not clean," he says. "When you become the Boston Commons of the community, you get a lot of opinions and a lot of people just duking it out. But they're talking to each other. Before, a lot of these groups would never even talk to each other. We'll become a much healthier community as a result of this."
< Introduction | Table of Contents | The Leadership Challenge >
[ Civic Catalyst Newsletter ]
[ Publications ]
[ Videos ]
[ Speeches &
Articles ] [ Research ]
[ Conferences & Workshops ] [ Spotlights ]