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.
The Boston Phoenix says Boston Herald reporter Jules Crittenden, embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq, may have written the "most astounding media" story of the war - his account of how he jumped the shark from journalist to GI during the Third Infantry's entry in Baghdad:
"It was here I went over to the dark side. I spotted the silhouettes of several Iraqi soldiers looking at us from the shadows 20 feet to our left. I shouted, 'There's three of the (expletive) right there.''"
Moments later, three Iraqi soldiers were dead. "I saw one man's body splatter as the large caliber bullets ripped it up. The man behind him appeared to be rising, and was cut down by repeated bursts," Crittenden wrote.
Phoenix reporter Dan Kennedy raises the question whether the embedding program puts journalists at risk of becoming combatants. A couple of J-school deans sensibly answered that self-preservation comes first.
Kelly McBride, an ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute, worries, however, that the Sgt. Slaughter-esque tenor of Crittenden's piece reveals his bias toward the soldiers he is accompanying.
What concerns McBride is what makes the story appealing to me - the emotion, the drama, the details, elements lacking in bland stretch for objectivity of most news stories.
In his story, Crittenden offers a pre-emptive response to critics:
"Some in our profession might think as a reporter and non-combatant, I was there only to observe. Now that I have assisted in the deaths of three human beings in the war I was sent to cover, I'm sure there are some people who will question my ethics, my objectivity, etc. I'll keep the argument short. Screw them, they weren't there. But they are welcome to join me next time if they care to test their professionalism."
The best reporting preserves moments in life that should not be forgotten. Crittenden's piece certainly qualifies.
UPDATE: MediaMinded also comments on Crittenden's story and points to a flap over Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Carl Prine's decision to pick up a gun during a battle "because we were ready to rock and roll." [ Read it ]
A new survey of American journalists found that, on average, they're older, better educated, a bit wealthier, just as male and less Democratic than a decade earlier.
The Indiana University study is the fourth in a series of surveys. The first was done in 1971, the last in 1992. Here are some highlights:
Age: The median age of journalists is 41, up five years from 1992 and generally older than the U.S. labor force. The newsroom age bubble pretty much follows the Boomer generation drawn to the profession during the post-Nixon years. [ Read more ]
Gender: Even though more than half of new journalist (less than five years experience) are women, their percentage in the business (one-third) has stayed the same for 20 years. Retention is a problem. [ Read more ]
Salary: Journalists' median income rose to $43,588 in 2001, outpacing inflation in the last decade. Women journalists, though, make nearly 20 percent less than men. This might connect to the retention problem, you think? [ Read more ]
Politics: I hate the liberal-conservative press debate since it's like arguing over the weather - and because I believe most newspaper journalists are reactionary (in the non-political sense) by nature, and therefore a root cause of newsroom stagnation. That said, the survey found that 37 percent of journalists identify themselves as Democrats, moving them closer to the national percentage of 32 percent. It's the lowest number since 1971 (proving, perhaps, that the greatest Democratic recruiter in the last half-century was Richard Nixon). [ Read more ]
Morale: One-third of journalists are "very satisfied" with their jobs, up from a decade earlier but still far less than the 49 percent who felt that way in 1971. [ Read more ]
Values: Journalists believe media owners care most about audience (89 percent) and little about employee morale (32 percent). I'm not sure if this is self-delusional, but 62 percent of journalists felt that editorial quality was rising even as newsroom resources were shrinking. [ Read more ]
Mass vs. Class: Only 15 percent of journalists, the lowest ever, believe they should concentrate on "news which is of interest to the widest possible audience." What the survey doesn't tell us is whether this acceptance of the nichefication of news indicates an acknowledgement of the need for multiple products from the same source, or merely a surrender to a changing marketplace. [ Read more ]
Internet: Eight of 10 journalists use the Web one a week for news; three-quarters do so for email; half scan the Net for story ideas. My comment: Why aren't they all doing it? [ Read more ]
All of these facts relate to the quality of newspapers in some way because papers reflect the biases, interests, attitudes, energy, beliefs and training of the people who write and edit them. More important, though, than the demographics of the profession is how journalists - and publishers -- act to overcome them.
Baby Boomer editors can't help being older - but they can stop writing headlines that reference 30-year-old rock songs. Newspapers can't stop the proliferation - and personalization of media - but they can embrace it instead of ignoring it. Newsrooms don't need to apologize for being male, white and monolingual - but they should get more women, more minorities and teach everyone to speak another language.
Surveys offer us facts. But we shouldn't, as we used to say in those days of higher job satisfaction, let the facts get in the way of a good story, which, in this case, is a still unwritten tale of how ink-stained traditions adapted and thrived in a digital world.
Leave it to Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews Group (owner of the Denver Post and 46 other daily newspapers) and one of the most penurious publishers in the industry, to dampen any near-term hope for a resurgence of quality journalism.
After researchers told the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in New Orleans that dollars invested in quality produce fatter returns to the bottomline [ Read Quality Journalism & Porn ], Singleton reminded the assembled editors that publishers control the purse strings and his are remaining closed.
"We're in one of the longest downturns our industry has ever seen," Singleton told Newsday. " ... Revenue will turn around, but until it does, the quality of newspapers is affected."
This admission that the revenue tail wags the editorial dog comes from a man who only four months ago told the another gathering of editors, the APME convention in Baltimore on Oct 25, "Right now, few priorities are more important than providing our readers with the high-quality content they seek -- no matter if it's in our print edition, online, via a mobile phone or Palm Pilot, or by some other means not yet invented or tried."
In the same speech Singleton said, "Even during the last two years, when the newspaper industry faced its worst economic downturn since 1938, MediaNews continued to grow spending in the newsroom, in newshole and in circulation promotion. To be sure, we cut a lot of costs to get through this difficult period. But not in news, newshole or circulation promotion. Remember, 'It's the content, stupid.'"
That may be the case, but the Starbucks-level salaries paid by some of Singleton's newspapers (his Alameda News Group pays $12.50 an hour to start for reporters and editors in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the nation's most expensive places to live), fail to attract the best journalists, so quality suffers even if the newshole doesn't.
So, we have a classic chicken-and-egg question. Do you build readership, and therefore revenue, by investing in quality? Or do you wait for revenue to rise before investing in the newsroom? Singleton's answer seems to be, "It's the revenue, stupid."
After a week-and-a-half in my house in southern Mexico, located at the end of a dirt road far from a phone, TV or newspaper, I got back just in time to catch this definition of quality journalism given by L.A. Times assistant managing editor Simon Li to the American Society of Newspaper Editors' convention in New Orleans: "It's like that Supreme Court Justice's definition of pornography: Most of us know it when we see it."
Li spoke during an ASNE discussion on the relationship between editorial quality and profit, which focused on studies that show investment in the former can directly enhance the latter.
"Thirty-five years of scholarly research confirms what many of you probably believed all along, that investment in quality content improves the bottom line," said University of Missouri professor Esther Thorson.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, told ASNE, "We can prove the proposition that good journalism is good business."
Rosenstiel, aided by the University of Missouri and the Poynter Institute, analyzed years of research that tracked newsroom investment against financial return. He concluded:
"To survive, the news business is well past the point where we can say that quality is simply a moral obligation. Or keep the business people out of the newsroom. The good news is, apparently, there is a generation of research out there -- and current data too -- to suggest that the newsroom has a much, much stronger case to make than that. Now we need to expand the research so you can make that case."
The Poynter Institute has pulled together Rosentiel's work, and those of several other quality journalism researchers, in a package. [ Read it all here ]
Disappointing, from my perspective, is how the ASNE itself treated the discussion, not bothering to put a story about it on the front page of its convention newspaper, which devoted nearly its entire cover to a speech by Vice President Dick Cheney, and playing it on the ASNE website beneath stories about singing conventioneers and New Orleans jazz.