'Public Journalism' Aims to Revitalize Public Life

Controversial trend is response to negative attitudes toward the press and a disillusioned citizenry

VENTURA County, Calif., has almost 100 miles of stunning coastline, a busy port, and thriving boating and beach communities. Nonetheless, the Ventura County Star never covered it, at least not coherently, says its new editor. "An environmental reporter might do a story here or a business reporter might do a story on the port, but no one was looking at it as a way of life," Tim Gallagher says.

Next month that will change when the paper starts an Oceans and Coastline beat.

The move is part of a new trend in newspaper reporting in response to a series of challenges: a steady decline in the percent of the population reading newspapers; fierce competition from the more immediate and emotional electronic press; and a huge credibility gap with an increasingly cynical and less-literate public.

While many newspapers have gone electronic, offering on-line computer services and Internet addresses, others say newspapers' survival lies with reforming the culture of journalism.

"The relentless cynicism and 'insiderism' has been produced by the traditional journalistic value system," says Jay Rosen, director of the Project on Public Life and the Press at New York University and one of the founders of the "public journalism" movement.

Public journalism is still hard to define, yet it has set off a firestorm of controversy in the journalistic community. Advocates hope it will help revive an apathetic citizenry and reverse the 20-year decline in readership. Critics contend it will lead to pandering that could compromise journalism's fourth-estate role.

Professor Rosen's project defines public journalism this way: "In general, it means an approach to journalism that tries to engage citizens in public life, improve public discussion, and reconnect journalists to the communities they serve."

It is based on the traditional American notion that to have a healthy democracy you need an informed and active citizenry.

"The crime problem doesn't continue because of a lack of information," says Davis (Buzz) Merritt, editor of the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle and a dean of the public journalism movement. "The crime problem continues because there's a feeling on the part of people that they can't really do anything about it." Mr. Merritt and other advocates say that the conventional journalistic approach is superficial and elitist. Reporters go to experts on both extremes of a debate, report their clashing views, then ignore the larger, more complex and ambivalent discussion of how a community can solve the problem.

"Conflict makes good news stories, ambivalence does not," says Merritt, who points to a 1994 Times Mirror Poll that found that 71 percent of Americans think the media "stands in the way" of the country solving its problems.

Media critics have long bemoaned a cynical journalistic culture that prizes controversy and access to high-level officials and experts, and rewards aggressive, barbed questioning.

"Both the 'access culture' and the 'aggression culture' don't have a place for the reader in them," says Cole Campbell, editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., which began looking for a better way to cover the news in 1990. "The question is: How can we as journalists help people better understand what's going on and help them better take responsibility for it?"

There is no simple formula to put public journalism into practice. It's currently made up of projects at 171 newspapers nationwide. (See related story, left.)

Public journalism "holds citizens accountable the way we're already comfortable holding politicians accountable," Campbell says. "If there's a double murder in an impoverished neighborhood, you also have to ask the wealthy suburbanite who drives around that neighborhood about his thoughts and responsibilities."

Public journalism also has to do with changing the way reporters think about their communities. Gallagher is trying to do that in Ventura by devising new beats, like Oceans and Coastline. "The reporters are calling it the 'Bay Watch Beat,' " Gallagher says. "But that ... reporter can't be sitting around on the beach getting a tan doing features. He's got to have his list of contacts, know all of the issues...."

Many editors have taken a cue from papers like the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, which after the bruising 1988 campaign asked readers what they would like to see in the way of political coverage. The response was unequivocal: more coverage of issues, and less of the mud-slinging and the horse-race of who's up and who's down.

But critics of public journalism say it threatens the news media's independence and could lead to a press that panders to the public's whims as it compromises its role as national conscience.

"Much of it is well-intentioned, but some of it is a cynical attempt to convince the community that you can solve its problems, that you're a part of the community, so you can sell more newspapers," says Howard Schneider, a managing editor of Newsday. He sees it as a dangerous response to uncertainty in newspapers today.

Mr. Schneider also worries that the movement's attempts to get closer to the community could compromise journalism's tradition of forcing communities to confront painful issues, whether it's the overt racism of the 1950s and '60s or the red-lining scandals of today.

The Washington Post's Richard Harwood says that public or civic journalism is often just old-fashioned, quality reporting. "Newspapers already poll regularly," Mr. Harwood says. "If you had a program of public journalism, would you take your poll findings and do something different than report them?" he asks.

'NO one is suggesting a relinquishment of political neutrality," or that the press should become a partisan actor," Rosen says. "We're worrying about all of those things, but from the perspective of trying to get the connection right between journalism and citizens."

"I understand it, but it leaves me uneasy," says Marvin Kalb, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, and Public Policy. "If it becomes simply another political force in our society, then it will have lost its original purpose and we will all suffer for it," Mr. Kalb says. He adds that the media already has too much direct influence in the political process with reporters routinely taking on the role of policy expert and opinionmaker.

Kalb would simply like reporters to return to their traditional roles as conveyors of information and political watchdogs.

Schneider argues the real answer to newspapers' woes lies in more "intelligent, serious, probing, wonderful, rich writing."

But for advocates of public journalism, that's not enough. "The primary objective is not to help newspapers survive," Merritt says, "to revitalize public life. Because if people aren't interested in public life, there's no need for journalism."

Three Papers' Projects In 'Public Journalism'

PROF. Jay Rosen, director of the Project on Public Life and the Press at New York University, and his colleagues are studying 171 "public journalism" projects that deal with everything from sponsoring public forums on crime and community development to organizing citizen panels to set parameters for political coverage. Some examples from Professor Rosen's study:

The Charlotte, N.C., Observer's 'Take Back the Neighborhoods'

In 1994, the Observer targeted neighborhoods with violent crime rates at least twice that of the rest of the city. It developed a six-month strategy that included increased coverage, town meetings, and formation of advisory groups in each neighborhood to help develop solutions. The paper teamed with a local TV station and two radio stations to coordinate coverage, and established a partnership with United Way to channel volunteers, pool resources, and hire a community liaison officer to get neighborhood groups involved.

The Spokesman-Review's interactive newspaper pages

In February 1994, the Spokane, Wash.-based journal abolished the post of editorial-page editor and replaced it with an "interactive editing team." The goal is to bring new voices into the paper by helping readers develop their own personal columns, elicit expert commentary from the community, and develop packages on key issues.

The Oregonian's '94 campaign

The Oregonian let its readers set the issues agenda, using polling and other research to identify key concerns. It followed up with in-depth, pre-campaign reports on such issues as crime, growth, and education.

Next, it produced in-depth reports on the candidates' stands on the issues. It also reported on the qualities that define good leadership. To encourage reader response, it even began printing reporters' phone numbers at the end of stories to encourage readers to contact them.

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