April 18, 2003

An Uncivil Eulogy to Civic Journalism

Allan Wolper, the unyielding press ethicist who writes a column for Editor & Publisher, comes not only to bury civic journalism but to trumpet its demise with a raspberry so loud you might think he was a professor in the Bronx rather than at Rutgers. He writes:

"It is time to let the Civic Journalism Movement go. It has done enough damage -- thanks to hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing to newsrooms from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. But, fortunately, the center is closing its checkbook, and doors, next month and won't be funding any more of those reach-out-and-touch-someone programs that it calls good journalism. Here's hoping the movement goes with it."

Civic, or public, journalism came into vogue in the early 1990s when the Pew Charitable Trusts (created by the heirs of the Sun "Sunoco" Oil Co.) formed the Pew Center and began handing out "contracts" to U.S. newspapers to fund research and stories.

What types of stories? Matt Storin, then editor of the Boston Globe, defined them in the Pew's Winter 1995 newsletter: "Public affairs journalism is, to my mind, the coverage of public affairs as events and issues that we report and analyze. Public journalism takes the same events and issues and allows citizens a role in setting the agenda and offering their reactions and proposals."

The idea was controversial from the beginning. Critics said civic journalism allowed reporters to become advocates; supporters embraced that very idea. The Wall Street Journal in 1996 had this anecdote:

"At a Pew-sponsored workshop this summer, Liz Chandler, a reporter on the Observer team, recounted how the project had given voice to Charlotte residents' complaints that the city needed more recreational facilities. And, she declared, they got their wish: 'We got a $1 million recreation promise' from local officials. Was she crossing a line from reporter to activist? She didn't think so, explaining: 'For any journalist to say they're not an advocate isn't true.'" [ Read it ]

Listen carefully and you can hear Wolper's blood pressure rising in reaction to that statement. One argument for civic journalism was that it would re-engage newspapers with their communities and thereby re-establish the public's lost trust in them.

Hogwash, says Wolper:

"The media have lost the trust of people because corporate profit-mongers nickle-and-dime newsrooms to death -- especially at certain chain-controlled journalism outposts. Reporters who used to cover one or two municipalities became responsible for three or four and sometimes an entire county -- working the territory from the serene setting of a central office. Call it E-mail Journalism."

To me, the problem with civic journalism wasn't the idea of connecting with readers or covering communities more closely. Those should be reflexive characteristics of any newsroom's personality. The problem was doing those things with other people's money, people who, however much they denied it, counted on results. As Wolper says, "Every Pew-funded project was big news: It's what nonprofits expect for their money."

Good reporters instinctively connect to their communities. They shouldn't be paid extra to do so. Caring about crime, being concerned about education, sharing public outrage over lazy or corrupt elected officials doesn't interfere with good journalism. It causes it. But there is a line between empathy and advocacy that should not be blurred.

Matthew McAllester, the Newsday reporter who was held with some colleagues in an Iraqi prison a couple of weeks ago, knows where that line is. Wolper quotes him: "Journalists are meant to bear witness. That's rather the point of our job. We watch and record and tell other people what we have seen, perhaps in the hope that an account, a witnessing, could [chip] away at badness."

That, says Wolper, is civic journalism.

 Editor & Publisher RIP, Civic Journalism
 Wall Street Journal 1996 story on Pew Center for Civic Journalism

Posted by Tim Porter at April 18, 2003 08:44 AM

My problem with many proponents AND critics of "civic journalism" is that we never agreed upon a standard definition of the term. Without that, voting yea or nay on the concept is meaningless.

For example: Was all civic journalism funded by foundations/nonprofits? No.

Did all civic journalism involve convening citizen panels? No.

Did all journalism that involved citizen/reader input constitute civic journalism? Of course not.

And so on.

Posted by: Lex on April 28, 2003 10:53 AM

It is certain, the projects were supported economically, but as good journalist would have to ask: Whay?. The data do not lie: less and less people read on politics news. Less and less people are interested in the politics. People do not participate.
The journals must remain of crossed arms? They can follow "connecting" in other areas,and issues but its realy dificult they will make to raise the political cover without making novel, original practices and why not to say it... expensive. A greeting and excuse my inglish.

Posted by: Mariela on June 14, 2003 08:30 AM
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