Thank you. I'm very pleased to be here. To me, SPJ represents journalists
from the nation's best regional newspapers, radio and television stations -
the heartland of American journalism.
We know from over a decade of experimentation in civic journalism that, even
though there is a great deal of hand wringing about profit pressures, there
is also an enormous capacity for experimentation and innovation. And nearly
all of that experimentation and innovation in the civic arena came from you
folks - in the heartland. Not New York City. Not Washington, D.C. Not Los Angeles.
But from regional newspapers, radio and television stations in St. Paul and
Charlotte, Seattle and San Francisco, Spokane, Portland and Philadelphia.
It's hard for many of us to believe that we've actually been engaged in civic
journalism experiments now for more than 10 years. I'd like to trace the progress
and share with you some newsroom epiphanies and some actual research findings
about civic journalism.
Overall, we are thrilled with the legacy. Simply put, when civic journalism
was well executed, the journalism got better, usually much better. More important,
though, the communities got better, too. Readers and viewers, rather than being
passive recipients of a data dump, actually found a way to do something with
the journalism. The journalism made a difference. People addressed alcoholism,
failing schools, sprawl and bad economies.
. Civic journalism imparted some tough love to some tough issues.
The Pew Center since 1993 has funded 120 projects in more than 225 newsrooms,
counting all the media partnerships. Another 450 independent initiatives have
crossed our transom. We've trained nearly 4,000 journalists and educators.
What We Know
And from independent and academic research, this is what we now know:
In a poll we did last year, 66 percent of top newspaper editors said they like
the idea and philosophy and the tools and techniques of civic journalism. But
- We know civic journalism triggers civic behavior - from voting to volunteering.
From attending a town meeting or joining an action team. It got people involved
because it gave them a menu of options for how they could get involved if
they wanted to.
- We know it builds knowledge. People who participated in civic journalism
projects were measurably smarter about the issues.
- We know it builds credibility. People trusted the news organizations more
after a civic journalism project.
- We know credibility can help news organizations make money. Phil Meyer at
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has done some important research
- We know citizens "get" it - and like it.
- We know that once journalists do it, they get it, too. Sometimes, they're
a little slower than the citizens.
- And, finally, we know that most journalists hate the name. We journalists
unabashedly label people conservative or liberal, a hawk or a dove, a frontrunner
or a loser. But we don't want any labels attached to ourselves. So be it.
- 19 percent wholeheartedly embraced the label.
- Another 47 percent embraced the philosophy but didn't much care for the
- 10 percent actually recoiled from the label.
- 9 percent just hate everything having to do with civic journalism.
One of the trends we have seen over the last 10 years, though, is a big difference
in what surrounds the label. In 1993 and 1994, you'd hear civic journalism treated
synonymously with "advocacy journalism" or, because of the early use of citizen
focus groups, "market-driven journalism."
Now, though, what do we hear? We hear: Why can't you just call it "good journalism?"
We'll take that because it does make the journalism better - but most civic
journalists think it is more than that. Civic journalism much more actively
seeks input from ordinary people and builds in entry points for that input.
And we have seen those entry points get a lot more sophisticated over the
decade. Projects that started out with early entry points, such as town hall
meetings, like this one in Tallahassee, bootstrapped themselves into things
like mock juries at the Seattle Times, or action teams at the Binghamton Press
& Sun-Bulletin. Now, we are seeing experiments with:
The Pew Center did a poll last year and 90 percent of the nation's top newspaper
editors said the future health of the newspaper business depends on more interactivity
- Web cams in Hispanic households, like this at KVDA-TV, the Telemundo station
in San Antonio.
- Computer kiosks in Missoula, Montana.
- Clickable maps like the one used to report on waterfront redevelopment in
Everett, Washington. Pretty cool, huh?
Seventy-three percent of the editors said they were not happy with their current
level of interactivity - despite an enormous level of interactivity being introduced
just in the last decade with e-mail, voicemail, faxes, Web chats and town hall
And the future promises to introduce even more innovative ways to listen to
and involve citizens. We'll talk more about this Interactive Journalism in a
In the Beginning
A bit of history here: Civic journalists are motivated by deep concerns about
contemporary journalism. Surveys tell us that the public believes that the lines
between reporting and commentary have become blurred; the lines between entertainment
and news have become blurred. Journalists seem to be unable to "get it right."
The news media is spending more time serving the elites than ordinary citizens.
People tell pollsters that the media is out of touch with the public. And they
say that journalism is motivated by commercial interests, which is driving sensational
The Pew Charitable Trusts entered the picture not out of a concern for journalism.
Rather they were concerned about civic engagement. The hypothesis: If
people are not voting, not volunteering or not participating in civic life,
if they were "Bowling Alone," were the media a part of the problem?
Were we creating a nation of spectators and rubberneckers instead of a nation
of citizen participants in a self-governing society? Were we creating a product,
a commodity, when we could be holding citizens accountable to their jobs as
citizens, just as we hold public officials accountable to their jobs?
Part of the grand experiment was to see if we could build a journalism that
abandoned the attack dog role, but still retained the watchdog role - while
also assuming the duties of a guide dog, helping people figure out what kind
of roles they could play in a daily democracy beyond simply casting a ballot,
although that is certainly an important thing to do.
It is not surprising that civic journalism started in 1990-92 by experimenting
with issues-based election coverage - but the issues were citizen, or voter,
issues. They were not just the candidates' issues, the ones office-seekers touted
to move niche constituencies. So civic journalism brought you open-ended polling
and more citizen face time with the candidates, with citizens asking questions,
giving feedback. They brought you election stories with the frame of: Who do
we want to hire to run our government?
Now, think about it: What do you see on every major network? Ted Koppel does
town hall meetings. The networks stage citizen focus groups to weigh in, on
the air, after candidate debates. Civic journalism has gone mainstream. I am
concerned, though, that the tools and techniques have been hijacked, while the
goal has been lost.
In the early days of civic journalism, if a candidate refused to respond to
a voter question or issue, newspapers like The Charlotte Observer and
The Wichita Eagle left a blank on the page next to his position statement.
Candidates quickly came to understand that they needed to have a position on
issues that people cared about.
By 1994, civic journalism moved into the enterprise arena, with big projects.
These include one of the most successful templates of all time: The Charlotte
Observer's "Taking Back our Neighborhoods" series.
It looked at violent crime in 10 urban areas. It used all the civic journalism
bells and whistles. It started with computer-assisted data crunching and a poll,
but quickly moved to neighborhood listening sessions, advisory groups and town
hall meetings. The idea was to figure out how people living in those neighborhoods
defined the problems - not just the police, or some criminal justice expert
or the mayor.
Here's what really makes my heart flutter. Eight years later, people in those
neighborhoods still credit that project with incredible transformations. Those
places don't look the same, crime is down, new neighborhood leaders have emerged,
the city stepped up and closed crack houses and put in new street lights and curbing.
Community centers have been built. And the people thank the Charlotte Observer
for that. The paper did not tell people what to do. It just gave a menu of options
and people took it from there. In the civic journalism world, we call it building
civic capacity or civic capital.
- There were TV and radio partners.
- Success stories in neighborhoods that were changing for the better balanced
the stories about the crime-ridden, drug-plagued pockets of the city.
- Importantly, The Observer used space to publish so-called "needs"
lists of very specific things people in these neighborhoods said they needed
- everything from baseball gloves to a new recreation center. And they published
a phone number to call. Well, more than 1,200 Charlotteans did call because
the paper made it easy for them to see what they could do.
By the mid-'90s, editors said big civic projects were great but we really
need to do this daily. The Virginian-Pilot, and other papers, launched special
pages or sections: on Public Life, Public Safety and Education that tried to
provide not simply the 50-foot view of what happened yesterday but the 5,000-foot
view of how things were going over time. How were our leaders leading us? How
well were the schools teaching our kids? We saw reporting that delivered "score
cards," "status reports" and "to-do lists."
Then, of course, we see the rise of Civic Mapping, a phrase coined by the
I see civic mapping as civic journalism's biggest response to the rapid diversification
of communities. Editors woke up one day and said, "Hey, we couldn't even begin
to invite people in our community to a town hall meeting. For one thing, when
we weren't really paying attention, a bunch of newcomers came in - and they
don't even speak English. We don't know who they are, or what their issues are.
And they don't feel any attachment to the community - or to the news organization."
Civic Mapping taught journalists to expand their sources beyond the usual
Rolodex Commandos. Journalists went into communities in search of so-called
"Catalysts" - the people who get things done. And "Connectors" - the civic bumblebees
who pollinate a lot of different community groups, such as the PTA, the soccer
teams, the scouts, the churches.
It taught journalists to be careful of their preconceived views and to ask
more open-ended questions: "What do you make of that?" not "What's your opinion
about this problem?" (Many of these techniques are described in our popular
"A Journalist's ToolBox" set of videos and in our "Tapping Civic Life" workbooks.)
This laid the basis for Master Narrative coverage of communities - stories
that, as one of my former editors Gene Roberts described it, seep and ooze,
but don't "break":
The idea was to focus on covering the silences not just the noise. Especially
those silences that make people squirm.
- Like the "New City" series in which the old San Francisco Examiner chronicled
the impact of entirely new immigrants on neighborhoods, restaurants, the arts
scene, sports and schools.
- And the "Aging Matters" series in which the Savannah Morning News described
the impact of an influx of senior citizens on the city's housing, healthcare,
politics and philanthropic giving.
- And like the "Deadliest Drug, Maine's Addiction to Alcohol" series in which
the Portland Press Herald broke the silences about the devastating cost of
alcohol abuse in terms of traffic fatalities, house fires, abused children,
foster children and emergency room visits.
When journalists got deeper into their communities, two issues started emerging
over and over again in nearly every regional news organization. We saw it again
and again, in proposals for funding, in Batten Award applications, in independent
Those two stories were: failing schools and race relations.
And often the failing schools story was a race relations story, too, because
the schools that performed the worst were often in urban areas, had large minority
student populations, high minority drop-out rates, less money than schools in
more affluent neighborhoods or quantifiable performance gaps in black and white
student test scores.
These are stories that you need civic tools to report well:
So we see news organizations, in addition to just doing stories, also building
in entry points:
- You need to beware of framing them with pre-conceived notions.
- The choices are tough, the tradeoffs are difficult and the issues can be
mired in ambivalence, which makes the stories, frankly, kind of messy to write.
- Journalists may be quoting the wrong people, people that communities don't
see as leaders.
We have a timeline in the back of our new book "Civic Journalism: A Living Legacy"
that really demonstrates how civic journalists kept developing new venues for
citizens. When you look at it, the creativity is really stunning.
- The Savannah Morning News engaged a sizable citizens group in how
to reform their schools.
- The Wisconsin State Journal in Madison involved the community in
closing the test score gap between black and white students.
- The (Baltimore) Sun actually engaged the community in tutoring
to get third graders reading by age nine.
Interestingly, these various interactions turned out to have some significant
added value: They put civic journalists in the vanguard of interactivity, hence
civic journalists were extremely comfortable moving these interactions onto
the Internet later in the decade.
We are now starting to see e-letters, blogs, more clickable maps, dynamic
databases, choices exercises and simulations.
WXXI-TV launched a redistricting game earlier this year to let ordinary people
play with the choices of designing different legislative districts to better
understand the consequences. The Wisconsin State Journal with the University
of Wisconsin's College of Engineering launched an Energy Choices Simulator,
used at a conference to help people understand the economic and environmental
costs of using coal versus gas, oil, hydroelectric or wind power.
Again, the level of innovation has been exciting. The engagement of the public
has been a powerful testament to the merits of civic journalism. More than 30,000
people, for instance, used New Hampshire Public Radio's online Tax Calculator.
Journalism is no longer monolithic. No one size fits all anymore. And we have
great capacity to re-invent it and make it better and more useful to citizens.
So, in closing, what are my observations? I have two big ones. One is about
journalism today. And one is about the journalism of tomorrow.
About journalism today: The reporting about civic journalism in the mainstream
press is a classic example of much of what is wrong, in general, with reporting
today. We often say that civic journalism has had journalism done to it.
The reporting almost always starts with a pre-conceived stereotype and then
never tests that stereotype with legwork. It repeats what the reporter must
think is conventional wisdom - again with no reporting to back it up. It almost
always quotes the critics of civic journalism - and never interviews the actual
practitioners. It almost always frames the conversation as pro vs. con. Civic
journalism is either all bad or all good, without entertaining the notion that
you could have good and bad civic journalism, just like you have good and bad
investigative journalism, political reporting or feature writing.
Consider this example from the May 20, 2002, issue of Editor & Publisher.
The magazine was lauding the 10 newspapers in the country that "Do it right."
At the top of their list was the Wisconsin State Journal, which has the
oldest continuing civic journalism broadcast and print partnership in the country.
It's got a brand name: We the People, Wisconsin. They have closed the gap in
school test scores. They have changed the nature of political reporting in the
state. The name of their civic partnership has been turned into a verb. Citizens
ask the news organizations if they will "we the people" an issue.
Yet, here's how E&P led the article: "Civic journalism earned its decidedly
mixed reputation because it too often seems to involve timorous reporting followed
by community meetings led by editors acting so earnestly you fear that any minute
they will take out a guitar and lead everybody in a chorus of 'Kumbaya.'"
Next sentence: "That's not how the Wisconsin State Journal practices
So you set up a straw dog, and gleefully knock it down.
This, folks, is a true lede. Not based on any reporting. There's no documentation.
It leaves readers who know something about the subject, scratching their heads
and saying, "Huh?"
It's what we have come to call a "drive-by shooting."
As I work on a forthcoming book, I want to go back to the writers who crafted
these descriptions to see how they arrived at them. In truth, I think it's lazy,
or worse, non-existent reporting.
The decade is replete with such examples.
Finally, I want to suggest to you that what this decade has been about is
less about craftsmanship and more about connections. And the word "connections"
has a lot to do with the future of journalism.
That journalism will be about showing as well as telling, about knowledge
- not just breaking news, and about interactions - not just information.
My epiphany, as I have worked on the frontlines of the journalism reform movement
for more than eight years now, is that news consumers of the future are less
likely to want what we were all taught to produce: A finished story.
That's because many of them, and most of Gen X and Gen Y, prefer to engage
every day in the process of building their own stories. They know how to get
the information as well as, and sometimes better than, the working journalists.
Often from the original sources. They'd prefer not to have gateways or filters,
thank you very much.
They didn't grow up in the Watergate era. Journalists are not their heroes.
This image of the journalist exposing injustice, evil or wrongdoing doesn't
fully resonate. That's not what they see or hear on TV. In fact, they often
see quite the opposite.
Instead, I think that people are increasingly engaged in the process of co-authoring,
or co-producing their own stories. Indeed, a recent study by the Pew Internet
and American Life Project documented an increase in what they called "Do-it-yourself
So I see ordinary people, as much as journalists, becoming their own hunter-gatherers.
Assembling their own internal narratives, co-authoring their own stories, from
numerous components: drive-time radio, newspaper headlines (but less frequently
the full story), CNN or MSNBC in the background, e-mails from friends, theonion.com,
the Internet and Jay Leno.
They are building the story they believe. They want to participate in the
learning by interacting with the information, by testing out choices, by simulating
different scenarios, by querying dynamic databases.
As we move into our next iteration, we are creating a project called J-LAB,
The Institute for Interactive Journalism. It will build on the Pew Center's
chassis and be based at the University of Maryland's College of Journalism.
It will invite civic advances in the digital arena, nurturing new templates
- games, clickable maps, political matchmakers, new simulations. In short, new
ways to empower citizens and allow them to participate in choices about their
Why, just recently, an interactive obituary has been launched at the Spokane
Spokesman-Review, replete with video and audio of family members talking about
the deceased. I'm told it's a huge hit. I hope to soon be inviting you to join
Now, I love a beautifully written story as much as anyone. We, in journalism,
have for so many years now believed that if we would just write our stories
better, or tell them better, our audiences would grow.
What civic journalism has shown us is that: It's more about the attachments
we build with those audiences, the connections, the entry points, the interactions,
the participation. Those attachments build relationships and the relationships
with the news organizations are what make people committed readers and viewers.
The journalism of the future is all about less noise - and more intelligent
Thank you very much.