Wisconsin public television organizes a health care debate in a courtroom — elected officials are placed on trial, while selected citizens sit in the jury box.
The San Francisco Chronicle and local radio and television stations invite 600 Bay Area residents in a local high school to come up with solutions for traffic congestion.
The Charlotte Observer joins with other local media to orchestrate a series of town meetings on North Charlotte’s crime problem.
The Duluth News-Tribune and a local television station convene a meeting of 50 local men to explore ways to reduce domestic violence called “Men as Peacemakers.”
The Binghamton, New York Press & Sun-Bulletin and local television and radio stations gather more than 200 citizens to solicit citizen recommendations for dealing with corporate downsizing and other community issues.
Sound like public-spirited attempts to engage the citizenry? The selfless acts of responsible, journalistic, “corporate citizens?” Perhaps. Most notable, however, is that in each case mentioned above, the news organizations involved went on to “report” the “news events” that they themselves had helped orchestrate.
The brainchild — and the grantee — of major American foundations, this latest, hottest trend in American journalism is referred to variously as “civic journalism” and “public journalism.” Boosters like Charlotte Observer editor Jennie R. Buckner say it is about “giving a platform to individuals.” The Wall Street Journal describes it as an “aggressive brand of philanthropy.” The Washington Post’s David Broder says he’s “agnostic” about its merits, but his colleague Jonathan Yardley calls it “highly dubious.” What exactly is civic journalism?
As a practical matter, civic journalism seeks to bring ordinary citizens into the newsroom, involving them as much as possible in the framing and execution of news coverage. Says Buckner: “It’s allowing the citizens involved in a community to set the goal instead of the media setting the agenda or allowing the government to set the agenda. We’re giving a platform to individuals who may have never had an opportunity to speak their minds before.”
Civic journalism is notable for another reason: It represents perhaps the first time in American public life that a major change in journalism is being underwritten by an entity utterly outside the world of journalism.
The primary agent of this change is the Pew Charitable Trusts (assets $3.8 million), a Philadelphia-based foundation with no tradition of journalism funding. Pew has nonetheless been at the forefront of sponsoring civic journalism programs, with grants totaling $11.4 million since 1993. For newspapers and television stations which agree to cover issues in accordance with the tenets of civic journalism, Pew grants cover items that would not typically be paid for out of a newsroom budget, such as polls, focus groups, or town meetings.
Pew grants officer Tamar R. Datan recalls how the Pew Trusts first became involved in the civic journalism movement. “It was before the broader civic renewal movement was taking shape, in the middle of the 1992 elections. At the second debate, the question the woman asked President Bush was, ODo you know how the economy affects people?’ This was the debate where he looked at his watch, and everybody said he lost the debate at that moment. It was really at that point that we began to look at becoming more involved in journalism.”
In January 1993, the producer of that debate, veteran newsman (and former CBS Saigon bureau chief) Edward M. Fouhy, was invited to Philadelphia to join Pew President Rebecca W. Rimel and 40 others to discuss, according to Fouhy, “the general sense of there being a disconnect in the sense of community.”
After that meeting, Rimel coincidentally met with Knight-Ridder Chairman Jim Batten. A number of Knight-Ridder papers were already experimenting with a brand of civic journalism and Battan sold Rimel on the idea.
Recalls Fouhy: “Then Pew contacted me and asked if I would be able to help them think about a strategy for engaging people in the practice of citizenship, and that led to them asking me to do some research on what was happening around the country.”
By September 1993, Pew had committed $3.6 million to establish the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, with Fouhy as its Executive Director. Since its inception, the Pew Center has formed media partnerships in 47 cities and held more than a dozen regional workshops to disseminate information and swap strategies.
Pew’s civic journalism programs are funded under the rubric of the trust’s Venture Fund, a kind of in-house R&D shop that, according to Tamar Datan, develops “high-risk ventures that may lead to new lines of programming for the foundation.” The San Francisco-based Tides Foundation manages the accounting and administration of Pew’s subcontracts to provide polling and other services to news organizations.
Less publicized than Pew’s involvement, but of longer duration, is the Charles F. Kettering Foundation’s (assets $190 million) underwriting of what it prefers to call “public journalism.” Foundation associate Robert E. Daley recalls that Kettering got into public journalism in 1990 “because much of the work of the foundation had to do with what makes a democracy work.” Kettering board member and former Christian Science Monitor editor Katherine Fanning also provided impetus for the foundation to explore this new hybrid of public policy and journalism.
An operating foundation, Kettering began to devote roughly $100,000 per year of its own money to public journalism, but also set out to secure additional funding. When the work of New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who had been working independently on the idea of public journalism, caught their eye, Kettering applied for and was awarded a $514,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (assets $957 million) for a two-year research program directed by Rosen. The grant also funded a series of seminars at the American Press Institute in Reston, Virginia.
The marriage of Kettering and Knight was fortuitous, as it turned out. Del Brinkman, the Knight Foundation’s Director of Journalism Programs, explains that “There were a couple of trustees of the Knight Foundation who were interested in community connectedness. The discussion was almost incidental to an approach from NYU to fund a project in public journalism there.” The initial Knight grant has since been renewed, for a total Knight expenditure of just over $1 million.
Why are foundations so interested in journalism? The Pew foundation sees its goal as empowering citizens. Says Datan: “It’s really about expanding public discourse to include citizen voices, perspectives, and solutions to issues of public concern. What often happens in the news media is there is a set of events that are reported with the citizen being a non-participating observer. None of it is really about the stuff that you deal with or struggle with on a daily basis, so it’s increasingly hard to connect. Our view is that coverage ought to be expanded to include citizens’ perspectives on the issues.”
With newspaper readership and evening news ratings in a long-term slump, there are pragmatic reasons why media executives are interested as well. Kettering Director of Communications Edward J. Arnone: “It’s becoming more and more obvious that citizens are finding newspapers and broadcast news less relevant to their lives, and that is seen in the number of people who are ignoring the newspaper and news broadcasts. The viewership and readership numbers are getting uglier and uglier. Also, there’s a general feeling among a lot of journalists that their efforts to raise consciousness about social problems and to provide a venue for a discussion of these problems aren’t as effective as they’d like them to be.”
Advocates of civic journalism typically cite it as an antidote for mounting public frustration over the slow pace of change, political or otherwise. Kettering’s Arnone: “Most of us live in communities where it seems to take forever for different folks in the community to get anywhere on a problem or a concern. Journalists are excellent at raising consciousness about a problem. They’re so focused on spelling out the problems that they often do not devote enough time and attention to presenting a range of options for how people might deal with those problems.”
But not everybody is thrilled at the prospect of journalists presenting options — much less actually instigating citizen participation — least of all many journalists. The Washington Post’s David Broder declares himself an “agnostic” on civic journalism, but cautions that “when it comes to organizing a community response to problems, I think that is better left to people who have won an election than to people who have an appointed role in journalism.”
Broder’s colleague, Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, is less agnostic. He describes civic journalism as “highly dubious but momentarily fashionable.” Yardley warns that “the role of the journalist is to maintain as much distance as possible between himself and the world he covers. When journalists make the decision to enter public life they forfeit that journalistic distance.”
Yardley is particularly incensed about a major Pew-funded experiment in public journalism in North Carolina. Under the aegis of a consortium called “Your Voice, Your Vote,” six newspapers (including the state’s two largest), five commercial television stations, and one public television network joined together to cover the 1996 election in a manner that would “give citizens a voice,” in the words of Charlotte Observer editor Jennie R. Buckner.
There was nothing complicated about the theory behind the coverage. According to Buckner, the consortium simply asked the voters to “tell us what you want to know and we’ll ask the candidates.” The Observer and other members of the consortium commissioned polls to find out which issues lay heaviest on the minds of the electorate. Thus armed, they set out to ask the “right questions” of the candidates.
Four key issues emerged from the consortium’s polling: Crime and Drugs, Taxes and Spending, Affordable Health Care, and Education. These issues were, in turn, covered exhaustively during the campaign. The problem, according to Jonathan Yardley, was that the consortium covered little else. “They declined to cover the campaign as a campaign. They declined to let the candidates set the agenda,” said Yardley. “They weren’t interested in what the candidates had to say on any issues except what had been dictated to them by the polls, covering [those issues] to the neglect of issues the candidates may have felt were more important. This is not civic journalism, this is advocacy journalism.”
At least one candidate for Congress was mighty unhappy with the coverage. William E. Jackson, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for North Carolina’s ninth district, feels his bid was undermined by reporters who were primarily interested in just the four polling-derived issues. Writing in the New York Times, Jackson lamented: “There is something absurd about the papers’ reliance on polls. Surveys are snapshots of predominately uninformed opinion on a few broad issues. They do not promote intelligent dialogue between voters and candidates.”
Moreover, Michael Kelly has subsequently reported in the New Yorker that the consortium actually didn’t cover many of the issues voters thought most important. Not only were the choices for those polled limited to a preselected list of issues by the consortium, Kelly reported, but the consortium failed to live up to its own standard of citizen-directed reporting in selecting which issues would be covered.
Kelly reported that, although it out-polled the category of “Taxes and Spending” by one point in a July 1996 survey, “Families and Values” was not selected by the consortium as an issue to put before the voters in the tightly contested race between North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms and Democratic challenger Harvey Gant. This in a race, Kelly wrote, where Senator Helms had identified “reversing the fall in spiritual values in America” as “the most important issue before America today.” Stanford University journalism professor William F. Woo has a similar take on the coverage of the North Carolina election: “It would appear that the newspapers prepared the menu, and it was a limited menu. Then they decided which of the items that were ordered they were going to serve up.”
The chorus of media criticism of civic journalism becomes especially intense when foundation-funded personnel enter the sanctum of the newsroom. Foundation executives maintain that this concern is misplaced. The Pew Trusts’s Tamar R. Datan insists that underwriters of civic journalism “respect the independence and objectivity of newspapers.” Says Datan, “We have no interest in determining what should be the news, or how the news should be reported. What angle should be given to a particular issue is not of interest to us.”
The problem for would-be practitioners is that the creed of civic journalism emphasizes copious interaction with the public, yet most newsrooms are not equipped with the requisite equipment or personnel for the task. The Charlotte Observer solved this problem by using Pew money to hire a coordinator — Charlene Price-Patterson — to orchestrate neighborhood and town meetings.
Observer editor Jennie R. Buckner acknowledges Price-Patterson’s role as a “community coordinator” but cautions that “this person was not a journalist.” In reality, however, Price-Patterson had a desk in the Observer newsroom and at times performed quasi-journalistic tasks. For instance, Price-Patterson authored an op-ed on her experiences as a coordinator (“A Lesson From Taking Back Our Neighborhoods”). In addition, she was responsible for compiling and writing nine sizable inserts, consisting of requests for assistance by various community groups.
Journalists are divided on the merits of civic journalism, but most seem to agree that it is unwise to bring outsiders into a newsroom. Michael Gartner, editor of the Ames Iowa Daily Tribune, is not atypical: “If civic journalism means explaining things better to your readers, then great. But if it means putting in your newsroom a Ocoordinator’ from the Pew Charitable Trusts, then I’m laying down on the tracks. Would you put someone from General Electric in your newsroom?”
The Post’s Jonathan Yardley raises the larger concern of journalistic independence when newspapers come to depend on foundation assistance for polling and other activities, a relationship he describes as “very close to whoring.” Says Yardley, “When they start using the services of people who are subsidized by an outside institution that has an outside agenda, then I think the newspaper is selling part of its objectivity and its credibility.”
For decades, foundations have made major contributions to the study and theory of journalism. Civic journalism, according to its practitioners, represents something new, and whatever its merits, the sizable foundation grants it offers must be exceedingly good news for cash-strapped business managers. Editors, on the other hand, are confronted with a question: At what price?
For foundations, the question is if they can — or indeed if they should — remain objective while partnering themselves with the media in this brave new world of citizen-driven journalism. Stanford’s Professor Woo is skeptical, but thinks the press has the most to lose.
“The Pew Charitable Trusts has a very ideological view of America, a very definite view of the road America should take,” says Woo. “I think it’s quite worth examining whether the press, which has hitherto conceived of itself as an independent institution in America, and whose credibility arises out of that independence, should align themselves and become economically dependent on organizations that have an ideological agenda.”
James F.X. O’Gara is Director of Research at the Philanthropy Roundtable