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Overview

American journalists in the 1990s confronted disturbing trends-an erosion of trust in the news media, weakening demand for serious news, flagging interest in politics and civic affairs, and a discouraging public climate that seemed to be getting worse. In response, some news professionals sought to breach the growing gap between press and public with an experimental approach-public journalism. This book is an account of the movement for public journalism, or civic journalism, told by Jay Rosen, one of its leading developers and defenders. Rosen recalls the events that led to the movement's founding and gives a range of examples of how public journalism is practiced in American newsrooms. He traces the intellectual roots of the movement and shows how journalism can be made vital again by rethinking exactly what journalists are for.

Those who have supported the cause of public journalism have focused on first principles: democracy as something we do, citizens as the ones who do it, politics as public problem-solving, and deliberation as a means to that end. Rosen tells what happened as the movement gained momentum in newsrooms around the country and in the professional culture of the press. He reviews the flood of criticism and commentary aimed at public journalism and responds to those who express alarm at the experiment. Examining the mark that the movement has made on the field, Rosen upholds public journalism not only as a way for journalists to find a renewed sense of civic purpose for their craft, but also as a way to improve civic life and strengthen democracy.

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Editorial Reviews

Thomas E. Patterson
Jay Rosen is the intellectual force behind the civic journalism movement, and this remarkable book is the best statement yet of civic journalism's philosophy, promise, and problems. A must-read.
Lingua Franca
Tom Goldstein
A valuable addition to a meager list of books that take journalism seriously.
Tracy Lee Simmons
Providing us the refreshingly jargon-free manifesto of public journalism, [Rosen] proceeds in a spirit of fairness :to record both those successes and the criticisms of its myriad detractors.
Thomas E. Patterson
Jay Rosen is the intellectual force behind the civic journalism movement, and this remarkable book is the best statement yet of civic journalism’s philosophy, promise, and problems. A must read.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Are journalists eyewitnesses who describe to a passive audience the actions of political insiders? Or are they catalysts to a public conversation and civic action? This debate is at the center of the development of "public journalism," a movement that Rosen, former director of the Kettering Foundation's Project on Public Life and the Press, helped found. This partisan but fair-minded history examines both theory and practice, as Rosen recounts the movement's intellectual roots, its adoption by some newspapers and reaction within the profession, including criticism from heavyweights like the New Yorker's David Remnick and the New York Times's Max Frankel. Some examples of public journalism are clearly salutary: a newspaper refuses to accept political candidates' framing of a campaign and instead queries the candidates on vital issues; another supplements local crime coverage with regular charts, so trends are not distorted by the sensationalist focus on particular crimes. But many journalists remain skeptical of a theory that may lead newspapers to start recommending civic solutions in their news pages. Rosen distinguishes between advocating projects (e.g., building a new stadium) and engaging citizens without recommending specific goals, offering responses to critics that are mostly thoughtful but don't resolve, for example, how public journalism ought to approach subjects readers should care about but don't, like foreign news. It's disappointing that Rosen does not muse on journalism as practiced by the European press, the American alternative press or even opinion magazines like the Nation or the New Republic. While none play the civic role of a dominating daily newspaper, they certainly resist framing issues according to newspaper conventions of objectivity. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Rosen (journalism, New York Univ.) is best known for founding public journalism (also known as civic journalism), which aims to generate civic action; here he records the movement's history and goals. He argues that in an era of commercialized media, journalists have increasingly become distanced from their audience. While candidates spout rhetoric based on manufactured issues, playing to constituencies and cameras, journalists treat politics like an insider sport. The role of a responsible journalist should be to connect to citizens' concerns, helping them gain access to a democratic system. Critics of civic journalism say journalists' involvement in public issues could degrade to a market-driven posture or jeopardize their objectivity; to bolster his argument, Rosen quotes from highly regarded journalists, such as David Broder, James Fallows, E.J. Dionne, and Ted Koppel, who deplore current media trends. But the result is disappointing. Overwriting and repetitiousness suggest that the text would have been adequate as a magazine article. Recommended for journalism libraries only.--Elaine Machleder, Bronx, NY Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Steve Weinberg
Rosen writes with surprising verve. Most previous books about the pros and cons of the public journalism movement have been aimed primarily at journalists themselves. Rosen's book is different.

Christian Science Monitor

Carlin Romano
...by any measure, What Are Journalists For? arrives as the most intellectually textured explanation of public journalism to date...Rosen deserves a tip of the green eyeshade for an earnest, fair-minded and candid account of the newsroom phenomenon he helped shepherd...What Are Journalists For? makes an important contribution to greater intellectual sophistication in newspaper journalism...
The Nation
Tracy Lee Simmons
[Rosen] proceeds in a spirit of fairness -- to record both those successes and the criticisms of its myriad detractors.
Washington Post Book World
Thomas E. Patterson
This remarkable book is the best statement yet of civic journalism's philosophy, promise, and problems. A must read.
—from Harvard University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300089073
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 354
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press

The Roots of Public Journalism


I gave my first talk to journalists in 1989. The platform was the Associated Press Managing Editors convention, a yearly gathering of several hundred editors from around the country, held that year in Des Moines, Iowa. At the time I was an assistant professor of journalism with a Ph.D., but journalism as a craft was mostly foreign territory. What I knew of it came through the ideas in my dissertation, which had examined something scholars called the problem of the public. Roughly speaking, it asked whether the public of democratic theory resembled the public of actual practice, and if the answer was "no"—as many thought it was—what should be made of that fact.

    The question mattered because certain ideas about the press follow from the view of the public they contain. If the public is assumed to be "out there," more or less intact, then the job of the press is easy to state: to inform people about what goes on in their name and their midst. But suppose the public leads a more broken existence. At times it may be alert and engaged, but just as often it struggles against other pressures—including itself—that can win out in the end. Inattention to public matters is perhaps the simplest of these, atomization of society one of the more intricate. Money speaks louder than the public, problems overwhelm it, fatigue sets in, attention falters, cynicism swells. A public that leads this more fragile kind of existence suggests a different task for the press: not just to inform a public thatmay or may not emerge, but to improve the chances that it will emerge.

    John Dewey, an early hero of mine, had suggested something like this in his 1927 book, The Public and Its Problems. I decided to try out a version of his ideas on the editors in Des Moines. The key passage read like this:


The newspaper of the future will have to rethink its relationship to all the institutions that nourish public life, from libraries to universities to cafes. It will have to do more than "cover" these institutions when they happen to make news. It will have to do more than print their advertisements. The newspaper must see that its own health is dependent on the health of dozens of other agencies which pull people out of their private worlds. For the greater the pull of public life, the greater the need for the newspaper. Empty streets are bad for editors, despite the wealth of crime news they may generate. The emptier the streets, the emptier the newspaper will seem to readers barricaded in their private homes....
Every town board session people attend, every public discussion they join, every PTA event, every local political club, every rally, every gathering of citizens for whatever cause is important to the newspaper—not only as something to cover, but as the kind of event that makes news matter to citizens.


    In delivering these remarks, I was "parachuting in," as journalists call it. I knew little about trends in the newspaper industry, and beyond a summer internship at the Buffalo Courier Express I had scant knowledge of newsroom life. So I was a bit startled when the Des Moines talk drew an enthusiastic response from some of those present. Engaging with journalists on their terms wasn't part of my rather limited repertoire. These people intimidated me, in the way that all occupational cultures intimidate the outsider. An academic on foreign turf, I thought my assignment was to be "interesting" and then depart. Which is exactly what I did.

    But over the next few years I got more and more engaged with the sort of journalist I first met in Des Moines. As I came to understand, they and their co-workers were then living through what my academic colleagues and I were trying to think our way through—namely, what becomes of the press when the public's constitution alters or weakens? Some journalists were discovering what happens: a public was not always there for them to inform, a troubling development that caused them to think hard about what they were doing and why.

    The more I grasped this, the more it involved me with people who were beginning to wrestle with some difficult problems: fewer readers for their best work, a rising disgust with politics and journalism, and a growing feeling that the craft was misfiring as it attempted to interest people in the news of the day. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that a better way to "do" ideas about the press was to interest the press in the germ of an idea: that journalism's purpose was to see the public into fuller existence. Informing people followed from that.

    By 1993 this idea would have a name, public journalism, or equally often, civic journalism, terms that also described a small movement of people trying to discover what these names meant. Possible answers came from two directions. Beginning around 1989, a few daring editors had begun to experiment in their newspapers, while other thoughtful minds asked themselves whether serious journalism could survive without a stronger public climate around it. The other source for public journalism was a scholarly debate that reached back to the 1920s and remained alive in the 1990s. It asked about the nature of the modern public and current prospects for what professors typically called the public sphere. Academic work on these subjects was sophisticated and lively, but it rarely reached beyond the campus.

    Given the ferment in the press and a related debate among scholars, an opportunity presented itself: to join the two discussions, turning them into one. For as some in journalism started to think about their contribution to a healthier democracy, and as they connected these thoughts to the survival of their craft, they started to ask the question that had interested me and others in the academy: What does it take to make democracy work and what should be asked of the press?

    Public journalism tried to address this question, but not in an academic way. Instead, working journalists were enlisted in the inquiry and a small reform movement grew up around their struggles and experiments. Without people who were willing to call themselves public or civic journalists, there would have been no point in developing an idea with those names. But it turned out that there were such people, and what they were trying to do could not be done well unless the principles behind it were explained to journalists' satisfaction—which meant in a language they could share. That became a worthy test for academic thought, concerned as it was about the public sphere, but confined in most of its movements to the university.

    A few months after my talk in Des Moines, I was asked to join another gathering of editors, this one from the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, which had its headquarters in Miami at the time. The background to the invitation involved the views of the company's president, James K. Batten, a former reporter and editor who had worked his way to the top of the nation's second largest newspaper chain. An unusually gifted leader, Batten was admired by most of the journalists who made Knight-Ridder their home. Like all managers of newspaper companies, he was worried about the steady erosion of readership, a lengthy trend that had begun to threaten the bottom line. Newspapers were still quite profitable by the standards of other industries, but for a publicly traded company like Knight-Ridder any downward slide was sure to be judged harshly by Wall Street analysts and the apostles of shareholder value.

    Of course, their opinion was not the only one that counted. Communities might judge harshly a newspaper that delivered a thinned-out product to boost profits. So too would the journalists on board, who were not businesspeople by training or temperament. Paradoxically, this is what made them valuable to the business. The pursuit of truth, fairness, accuracy, and public service helped maintain a precious asset, commonly called credibility. A business philosophy that contravened those values would risk wasting the asset while demoralizing the staff. Equally troublesome, however, was a journalism that satisfied journalists but allowed the community to drift away. As Jack Fuller, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, put it, "A newspaper that pleases its writers and editors but is not a vital part of the community's life will be a commercial failure because it is a rhetorical failure."

    This was the tricky terrain Batten entered in 1989, the year he took over as head of Knight-Ridder. In an address at Riverside, California, he argued that newspapers would have to change their ways. Consider, he said, the declining percentage of Americans who kept up with the daily newspaper. In 1967, some 73 percent of adults reported that they read the paper every day; in 1988 that figure was down to 51 percent. "When I was a young reporter on the Charlotte Observer in the 1950s and 1960s, it never occurred to me to feel any concern about the financial health of my newspaper—or about its acceptance in the marketplace," Batten recalled. "My newsroom friends and I knew that was all foreordained."

    Financial strength translated into political confidence, Batten said. "We prided ourselves on our ability to tell the critics to go to hell. We were, after all, 'the press,' beholden to no one." Succeeding in the business was so easy that one of Batten's acquaintances got into it in middle age because he heard that you could succeed "even if you are brain-dead," as the friend put it. All this belonged to the past, said Batten. "The days when we could do newspapering our way, and tell the world to go to hell if it didn't like the results, are gone forever."

    Given declining readership and the heated competition for people's time, newspapers needed a more "customer-driven" approach, meaning ease of service for readers and advertisers. Batten said he wanted to see newspapers that were "warm and caring and funny and human, not just honest and professional and informative." Changes were also due in the culture of the press, so accustomed to glorifying the journalist's habit of defiance. Telling Richard Nixon to go to hell was one thing; it had led to the American press's finest hour during the Watergate crisis. Taking the same attitude toward anyone dissatisfied with the news was a dangerous habit, for there were threats to journalism's vitality that no spirit of defiance could address.

    The daily press was imperiled "by the very same forces that seem to erode the civic health of our cities and our nation: an inclination to withdraw into narrow, personal concerns and behave with indifference to our neighbors today and our communities tomorrow," Batten argued. "From the days of Mr. Jefferson . . . our system has operated on the principle that the American people, given sufficient information, are capable of making wise decisions," Batten remarked. "But as public issues become more complex, as our private lives become ever busier, as our appetites for self-indulgence grow seemingly without limit, one wonders some days who is really caring about the public's business. And who is willing to read about it. And act on what they read."

    What does it take to make democracy work and what should be asked of the press? This was Batten's theme. His answers were speculative. Newspapers had to "earn their keep on behalf of this democratic society" by refusing to accept a depressing state of affairs. They should "tackle head-on the American disgrace of pathetically low voter turnout" and stop pretending that printing a few "dull op-ed pieces" was a serious effort to stimulate debate. By sponsoring public forums, bringing contending parties together to talk, and making politics so vivid it was "tough to ignore," journalists could start recalling the public to the "public's important business." Batten urged journalists not to "wait for important issues to struggle to the surface, often in blurry form, then fail to get the crisp debate and resolution they deserve."

    In a lecture he gave on a similar theme in 1990, Batten advanced the belief—confirmed, he said, by the company's research—that those "who feel a real sense of connection to the places they live" are more likely to become newspaper readers. But "millions of our fellow citizens" have come to "feel little interest in—or responsibility for—their communities" and are choosing to avoid, not only the newspaper, but the whole sphere of politics and civic life.

    Batten had set himself a difficult task, for journalists were trained to regard any intrusion of business matters as illegitimate on its face. News could only be compromised by fads like "customer obsession," which were sure to mean less attention to serious stories of public import and more attempts to brighten the atmosphere with some of the happy talk and visual flair that marked the aesthetic of television news. The Gannett Company's colorful USA Today had gone this route; and for a time it stood as an icon of dread in every newsroom where management began talking about lost readers.

    But Batten said there was another loss to be reckoned with. Even if it were true that declining readership was someone else's concern—a risky attitude, but common enough—what about the problem of a disappearing public? Or people's disinclination to think of themselves as citizens, with a stake in the community's affairs? Could journalists honestly say they had no stake in that? This is the rhetorical space that opened up when Batten moved from customer talk to his observations about citizens and communities. Here he was asking journalists to concern themselves, not with the share price of the company, but with the share of the citizenry that felt engaged in public life. "Newspapers grew up on the premise that people were connected to their communities and wanted to know what was going on, wanted to be involved, in many cases wanted to make a contribution," Batten wrote. "Somehow that seems less true in the 1990s."

    Several years later the scholar Robert Putnam would bring forward an intriguing body of work that supported much of Batten's argument. In a widely discussed essay called "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Putnam began to document a long-term drop in civic participation. The title of the article originated in his whimsical finding that Americans were bowling more than ever, but they were doing it alone or with their families, not in leagues that involved them in a wider social circle. In itself the fact meant nothing, but Putnam saw it as part of a larger pattern of withdrawal from what he described as "norms and networks of civic engagement," the array of clubs, associations and informal meeting grounds that had always been a distinctive feature of the American scene.

    In Putnam's view a rich civic life produced such asset as social trust, reciprocal respect, mutual engagement, and political participation. These he called social capital, analogous to the human capital represented by an educated workforce. Among his bits of evidence for social capital's decline: from 1973 to 1993, the number of Americans who said they had "attended a public meeting on town or school affairs" in the past year dropped from 22 percent to 13 percent. From 1964 to 1982 the number involved in parent-teacher associations (PTAs) dropped from 12 million to barely 5 million, recovering to 7 million in the 1990s. The League of Women Voters, the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross all reported big declines. Certainly there were contrary trends, but overall the picture was a disturbing one, Putnam said. "High on America's agenda should be the question of how to reverse these adverse trends in social connectedness, thus restoring civic engagement and trust."

    Putnam's work drew critics, who disputed the evidence of a decline in civic involvement. But if he and Batten were even partly right, then journalists had reason to think, for a key premise of their work was in doubt: that people were naturally connected to the polity, whose affairs they would naturally regard as their own. If Americans saw their business in increasingly private terms, if they came to the conclusion that politics was the property of a remote class, if participating as a citizen was less and less important (or simply impractical), then the press had a problem: how to puzzle through the evidence of civic withdrawal and its many implications for their work.

    This was not something journalists could easily address from within. They were accustomed to covering the news, not rebuilding the logic on which the news was based. Here, then, was the reason for my invitation from Knight-Ridder in early 1990. My remarks in Des Moines struck the same note Batten was hitting in his own speeches, and he wanted minds other than his at work on the issues involved. Still a novice in speaking to journalists, I said little at that first meeting. But I was impressed by the spirited tone of the discussion, the editors' willingness to engage one another in argument, and the sense of purpose they showed in tackling the often fuzzy topic of "community."

    As a scholar of the media, I was also aware that this discussion was not supposed to be happening at all. Academics who grouped themselves on the political left (and this meant most of them) tended to view media corporations in one way: as maximizers of their profits, monopolizers of their markets, and threats to all forms of craft and culture that came under their relentlessly expanding domains. The notion that corporations themselves had cultures, some portion of which might be "public"—that is, devoted to a vital civic purpose—would have struck most of my academic colleagues as spectacularly naive. The corporation was evil, or, if this was too strong, it was plainly one-dimensional: a profit machine that would tolerate within its borders only those activities that extended its reach or enriched its shareholders. A media company was to be regarded with suspicion, broken only by occasional awe at the havoc it could wreak. Assuming that there was a genuine culture of debate within the corporation, or any deep commitment to public service, marked you as a knave or, worse, an apologist for "late capitalist" society.

    Well, I was not a learned student of capitalism, early or late. But as I sat in Miami listening to these editors struggle with the decay of community life, I began to get interested in their experience, which seemed to me reasonably complicated. On one hand, they were employees of a profit-maximizing company worried about its future revenues; Batten left no doubt about that. On the other hand, they were professionals concerned about the survival of something they loved. While they often called journalism a business (as in "I got into the business when you didn't need a college degree"), what they loved about it wasn't the money you could make, or the stock options you could earn, but the chance to tell stories, fight for justice, and feel close to the action when important events unfolded.

    They had a public identity that they took seriously, no less seriously because it was assumed under the heading of a private company. In fact, they were proud of that company, if wary of its ability to turn against their values, which were in the main public values, expressed through their membership in the fraternity of journalists. Knight-Ridder, in the degree that it gave its newsrooms space to operate, was a public company in a different sense than Wall Street understood. It employed the practitioners of a public art, provided the plant and equipment they needed, and allowed the pursuit of a high calling: telling the truth about the events of our time.

    "Within limits," academics on the left would be quick to say, with a knowing grin. "Only the truths that don't offend the powerful interests." Denizens of the political right spoke with similar confidence about the "bias" of reporters and editors, gatekeepers who let only liberal assumptions through. Both critiques had much to recommend them. There were limits on what the mainstream press took seriously, and it was sometimes useful to see them in ideological terms. Certainly the daily news columns did not contain many critiques of late capitalism. The business pages, to take just one example, were written about and for the business classes; political news was heavily dependent on official authority. Advertising dollars, on which the enterprise depended, hardly left the press unfettered. Exposés of department stores and automobile dealers were a rare sight in daily newspapers, and everyone knew why.

    Meanwhile, it was hard to deny that newsrooms were citadels of secularism, and thus inclined to regard, say, religious conservatives with a mix of ignorance and contempt. There were always critiques like this to be made, but in making them consistently—at times, reflexively—critics on the left and the right seemed bent on reducing journalism to a shadow of ideology: the ideology of big business and official authority from one perspective, liberal ideology, permissive and pro-government, according to the other.

    Getting simultaneously bashed from the left and the right is oddly comforting for journalists; it seems to suggest that they're steering right down the middle, which is a territory they associate with balance and truth. But the deeper defect of an ideological critique is that it fails to address the belief system of the American press as its members experience it. Journalists don't see themselves as tools of the corporation or defenders of the liberal faith. But they do regard their craft as a public service, and the way they understand this service matters. The daily rituals and peer culture of journalism advance a host of assumptions about politics, power, people, public opinion, and democracy. How could it be otherwise? Journalists need ideas and convictions to guide their search for news; these form the common sense of the profession, or, to put it another way, its soul.

    But the soul of the craft can itself be crafted. This is what Batten was recognizing, in his speeches and by calling his editors to Miami. Different times call for different approaches, and different ideas to justify them. As I listened to the Knight-Ridder editors deliberate, the phrase "freedom of the press" took on fresh meaning. Perhaps the commercial press couldn't break free of the profit motive. But journalism could alter its established creed, learn again what made it valuable to democracy. It had some room to maneuver within the boundaries that made it a business and a professional code that honored neutrality over commitment.

    These speculations deepened when I learned that some of Batten's editors had taken him up on his ideas. Of particular interest were the efforts of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, in a sleepy Georgia town with its own charged history of race, poverty, and power. The editor in 1989-90 was Jack Swift, a Vietnam veteran and former columnist who was something of a local celebrity. Swift and some of his staff were then engaged in an unusual attempt to help bring people into politics through the agency of the newspaper.

    Columbus, Georgia, a small city about one hundred miles southwest of Atlanta, did not share in the economic boom that came to much of the South in the 1970s and 1980s. Its economy, long dominated by the textile industry and a nearby military base, had been slow in shifting to a new pattern. More service industries were moving to Columbus, but it was unclear whether the schools could provide the educated workforce needed for a high-wage service economy. More middle-class people were arriving, but the city lacked the amenities and civic improvements that would hold these newcomers.

    Blacks were a majority in the city schools and a third of all registered voters, but the political system had been slow in adjusting to these facts. There was still time to preserve an integrated school system, but the community was missing the leadership that might gradually shift power to the black majority while also preventing white flight. New highway links were on the horizon, but the local roads that fed into these highways would have to be improved, and the tax money was unavailable. In 1982, the voters had sent a hostile message to local government. A referendum was passed placing a dollar-amount ceiling on the municipal budget. It was later thrown out by the courts, but the hostility endured. In short, a familiar picture could be seen in Columbus: deep-set problems, lack of vigorous leadership, and scant political will.

    In 1987, the Ledger-Enquirer decided to do something. The editors planned a series of articles that would examine the future of the city and the issues it needed to confront. The paper surveyed local residents about their ties to Columbus and their vision of what they wanted it to become. A team of reporters conducted in-depth interviews with residents in their homes, while other correspondents spoke to experts and influential figures in town. The research was assembled in an eight-part series, called "Columbus: Beyond 2000," published in the spring of 1988. The report showed that most residents of Columbus liked their city and wanted to remain there. But it warned of a host of difficulties, including transportation bottlenecks, a history of low wages in the local economy, lack of nightlife in the city, a faltering school system, and the perception that a local elite dominated city politics to the exclusion of others.

    If the journalists at the Ledger-Enquirer had stopped there, they could have congratulated themselves. They had produced a thorough portrait of the city and its problems. After the series was published, the editors waited for the responses. They got a brief period of chatter, followed by silence and inaction. It was easy to see why. The problems the newspaper had identified were serious, but they had the defect of being gradual. They could be ignored for another day, month, or year; they involved difficult choices. The Ledger-Enquirer tried to exert pressure through its reporting and some strongly worded editorials. But these measures emerged into a kind of vacuum. The community lacked organization, leadership, lively debate. It had a government but a weak public sphere, a politics not enough people were willing to join.

    Having uncovered a need for discussion, but seeing no broad discussion at hand, the editors took a further step. They organized a public meeting where residents could discuss the future of their city. The aim was to offer a venue for what the paper suspected was a widespread sentiment: there was plenty to do in Columbus, and plenty of people who wanted to see something done. Three hundred citizens showed up for six hours of talk. They came from diverse backgrounds, and many had never participated in public life before. Journalists helped to run the meeting, but they rarely spoke. They tried to provide a forum for citizens to speak about their concerns for the future of their city and the way it was run.

    Shortly after the town meeting, Jack Swift organized a barbecue at his home for seventy-five interested citizens. Out of that gathering came a new civic organization, which called itself United Beyond 2000. The group was headed by a thirteen-member steering committee, of which Swift was a leading member. In the person of the editor came a direct and visible tie between the newspaper and this new community group. As participants understood it, their goal was not to lobby for this or that policy but to encourage average citizens as well as influential people to meet and engage with some of the choices the city faced. A number of task forces sprang up to sponsor discussion on key issues. These included recreation needs, child care, race relations, and the special problems of teenagers in Columbus. All were staffed by citizen volunteers.

    Among the changes Columbus needed, in the view of many, was a new climate for race relations, which were still affected by a past history of segregation and the memory of brutal violence. Swift, the white newspaper editor, had earlier made friends with a black state court judge named John Allen. The two friends decided that they could do something about the race problem in Columbus. They began to hold backyard barbecues at their homes, to which each man would invite a dozen or so friends. There was no agenda at these meetings. They simply brought together people of different races who ordinarily would not meet, in the hope that they would discover common interests or at least a mutual respect. At each barbecue, a small number of newcomers were invited so that the group would gradually expand. This "friendship network," as it was called, grew to some 250 members, from white bank executives to black barbershop owners. "Several participants said it was the first time black and white leaders had ever met in the city in a social setting," wrote one journalist who was involved in the project.

    The Beyond 2000 group went on to sponsor other public events, including a town meeting for teenagers that drew four hundred young people to a local mall for a discussion of their common concerns. The teenagers later organized their own mayoral forum, the first debate ever held between candidates for mayor in Columbus. Meanwhile, the newspaper continued to report the city's failure to come up with a clear agenda for the future. It explained how other cities of a similar size were trying to think about the long term. It continued to do enterprising journalism in the service of its declared aim: to keep the "Beyond 2000" discussion going.

    As I learned of these events and discussed them with Jack Swift, I started thinking the thoughts of an outsider. Maybe this is what I meant in telling the editors in Des Moines that "the newspaper of the future must do everything it can to encourage a more active public life." Perhaps the Columbus case illuminated what John Dewey was talking about in The Public and Its Problems. In a cryptic passage that closed the book, he stressed the imperative of public talk at the local level. Publishing the news remains incomplete, the public is left "only partially informed and formed," until what is published is actually discussed by citizens. What gives reality to public opinion, Dewey wrote, is the circulation of news and other knowledge "from one to another in the communications of the local community." While an "immense intelligence" greets and surrounds us as citizens of the modern world, "that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium."

    These words seemed to apply in Columbus. Citizens followed up on the newspaper's reporting with public talk about the implications. This talk became the medium through which news was made into fully formed public opinion, with the newspaper assisting in the process. Jack Swift and his colleagues tried to redraw the journalist's position within politics. Instead of standing outside the community and reporting on its pathologies, they took up residence within its borders. Journalists often fear that leaving the sidelines will cost them their credibility. But as the Ledger-Enquirer's publisher, Billy Watson, later observed, "The biggest credibility problem we have is that we're viewed as arrogant, negative and detached from the community, as tearing the community down." The Beyond 2000 project "did more to enhance the credibility and reputation of the newspaper than anything we've done," he argued.

    Still, there were plenty who saw danger in the experiment. On a visit to Columbus in 1991, I interviewed some of them. I asked Jim Houston, an editor at the Ledger-Enquirer, if he thought the newspaper had a duty to create public discussion if serious problems were going unaddressed. He paused for a moment before saying:


I think it has to be the exception. To do that every day would make the newspaper and its pages suspect in everyone's minds—reporters as well as people in the street. But to do it under exceptional circumstances and state what you're doing—yes, I think there's a place for it. The danger is in continuous involvement: when does motivation of a community become dictation? We brought people together at the original town meeting to tell them you don't have to do things in the traditional way—there are other ways. And it did motivate certain people, who got some things done.


    The danger he cites is real. "Motivation" could indeed turn to dictating the proper course, especially for a community group so dependent on the newspaper. Was it a risk worth taking? Houston's answer came not from his profession's values but from his feel for Columbus as a longtime resident. Those at the Ledger-Enquirer who were new to Columbus might not see why the newspaper should take such an unorthodox step, Houston said. "You had to live in the community," as he had for some twenty years.

    As the Columbus experiment became known within the newspaper industry, a variety of other suspicions were raised. During a panel discussion at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference of 1992, Howard Schneider, managing editor at Newsday, spoke out. "I think what Columbus did was bad," Schneider said. "I think the potential for mischief is great. I do not mean only that they had to report on what their editor was doing, but [also] buying into the idea that they are now a part of the community, and the community's agenda is the newspaper's agenda, and suddenly we have to make the community feel good. This may be a temptation to sugarcoat some of the realities of the city."

    This kind of criticism would flare repeatedly in the years ahead as others in the news business decided to "leap across the chasm that normally separates journalism from community," as Swift put it, while many of their colleagues learned of these leaps and drew back in disgust. "Getting involved" became one of the flashpoints for the controversy that surrounded public journalism when it surfaced as a movement after 1993.

    In 1990, I was more interested in the existential moment that preceded Swift's leap. When their series on the future of the city drew no visible response, the editors had to interpret this non-event. They could have felt perversely vindicated, confirmed in the dreary view that those in power merely have their eye on the next election, while the people at home are ill informed or lost in their own affairs. Or the editors might have said to themselves, "Why should Columbus jump when we say jump?" A third possibility was to see the lack of response as itself a valid response: "Look, we tried, but people don't feel this is important. So be it." All these reactions would have been supported by the common sense of the profession; none would have brought any censure or alarm.

    But a fourth reaction was the one Swift and others at the newspaper chose: to be disturbed when an outstanding public challenge goes unmet. Here, they showed a certain confidence in their own reporting, and in their concern for a community that could not afford to remain complacent and inert. Behind the Ledger-Enquirer's initiative was also a moral proposition: that it is wrong for communities to drift without direction when the future is closing in on them. In a democracy, the remedy for this wrong is politics, undertaken by citizens prepared to deliberate and to act. To get this kind of activity going was the cause the newspaper took up.


    Taking up causes had a long and fascinating history in the American press, but it was not a history from which contemporary journalists took comfort or inspiration. To them it smacked of advocacy, an abuse of the newspaper's power for partisan purpose, which violated the professional ideal of an objective press. Journalists were constantly being accused of allowing partisan or personal bias to color the news. They were often chagrined by these complaints because they worked hard to keep the most obvious forms of bias out of their reports, harder than many of the loudest critics knew. A separation between the news pages, where facts reigned, and the editorial pages, where opinion was allowed, was widely observed in the mainstream press. Newspeople equated these efforts with the reservoir of trust that sustained them—their credibility. Objectivity, accuracy, fairness, and credibility were common watchwords for a profession that depended in unusual measure on public support.

    Swift's experiment fit awkwardly within this vocabulary. The leap he talked about was toward a different ethic that could only be described using different words: democracy, community, citizenship, deliberation, public life. As I conversed with Swift and studied his actions, I found myself taking on a new role: friendly interpreter of a promising venture. From 1990 to 1992 I began to speak and write about the Ledger-Enquirer, addressing myself to journalists and their imaginations. The aim was not to duplicate the Columbus case; it was to get journalists curious about an alternative goal: seeing the public into fuller existence.

    While I was testing out this approach, Swift's efforts were being promoted within Knight-Ridder. Batten named him the company's editor of the year, praising the Ledger-Enquirer's determination "to build closer relations between the town's citizens, its government, and its newspaper." He then added a further point: many newspapers were unable to cultivate what he called community-connectedness because "they themselves are basically disconnected from their communities." Newsrooms had become "over-stocked with journalistic transients who care little about the town of the moment." With their gaze fixed on "the next (and bigger) town," these newsroom gypsies "know little about their community's past and make no effort to learn." And, Batten added, "there is always the temptation to make their byline files a little more glittering at the expense of people and institutions they will never see again."

    Here he hiked the stakes. In praising Swift, Batten had already sanctioned a leap into the unknown; he went on to question the mounting costs of the adversarial mentality. This is the one area where American journalism got political: its description of itself as a standing check on official authority, a kind of addition to the balance of powers laid down in the Constitution. Journalists were supposed to be quasi-official doubters of what government said and did; through aggressive reporting and probing questions they would hold institutions and elected officials up to public scrutiny. Much of the glory of the profession was bound up in this view. But so were certain problems. Batten noted one of them: journalists passing through on their way to New York and Washington might overvalue the destruction of public facades and undervalue an ethic of care, in which the press tried to strengthen the community's resources for coming to grips with public problems.

    The image of the press as a professional antagonist drew its considerable strength from historic events. At the national level, the litany of government lying during Vietnam, the showdown with the White House over the Pentagon Papers, and the triumph of the Washington Post during Watergate convinced a generation of journalists that official authority was not to be trusted. From there it was a short step to concluding that their own authority rested on rituals of mistrust. Any criticism of those rituals could be seen as a demand to "soften" the news, a deadly epithet, for to go soft was to lose your commitment to truth and thus all your credentials.

    This was not an irrational fear. At the local level a long history of civic boosterism, of newspapers seeing no evil in towns where the publisher was part of the power structure, gave weight to the newsroom's culture of suspicion. Here the relevant acts of heroism predated Vietnam and Watergate. They involved newspapers in the South that had defied majority opinion about civil rights during the epic struggles of the 1950s and early 1960s. In the mythology of press performance during this era, a racist community was plainly hostile to the journalist's truth-telling mission. It had been that way once and it could be that way again, many in the press felt. If truth was to be told on a daily basis, the community and its official representatives had to be resisted, their complaints put to one side. The same was true of customers—readers, viewers, or advertisers—whose demands could only lead to a softening of the news.

    James Squires, who later became editor of the Chicago Tribune, began his career at the Nashville Tennessean in 1962. In his memoir he describes what made journalism a heroic pursuit to his generation: "My role models were the editors and publishers who stood up to the government, who told the truth when it was not popular or profitable to do so, the people who had seen journalism as a tool with which to abolish slavery, to stand up to Fascism and racism. The greater the risks they took, the more consistent and persistent their stands, they taller they stood in my eyes."

    To tell the truth you needed a tough hide. Confirmation of this view came from journalists' everyday experience: the endless complaints about "negative" news when their reporting was even mildly critical, the instinct to stonewall, as Nixon had done, when legitimate questions were raised, the sheer volume of lying and calculated deceit that came their way as journalists fenced with spokespeople, tried to pin down politicians, and asked everyone in public life the rude but necessary questions in which they specialized. A kind of cult of toughness grew from these experiences. Journalists had to steel themselves for their daily battle against the truth-shaders, stonewallers, and sentimentalizers. The cult bestowed no peer penalty for excessive mistrust or outsized aggression, while it granted almost immediate censure to anyone who appeared to be going soft.

    Given these impressive fortifications, and the high moral ground on which it stood, adversarial journalism was exceedingly difficult to reach with any sort of intelligent critique. One of the first to try was Mike O'Neill, former editor of the New York Daily News, who in 1982 gave a prescient speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He began by noting the astonishing growth in the power of the news media, which had come about without "any corresponding increase in responsibility." Journalism's influence had become mixed up with and multiplied by television's, to the point where the communications revolution, as O'Neill called it, had "altered the basic terms of reference between the press and American democracy."

    Political parties had been weakened, direct links to the audience strengthened, and the interval between action and reaction dramatically shortened. The result was that "issues and events are often shaped as much to serve the media's demands as to promote the general welfare." Public actors turn to "creating controversy on demand, turning away from debate and petition in favor of protest and demonstration." The daily outputs of politics and journalism—what O'Neill called the raw materials of public deliberation—were now a "confusing mixture of the real and unreal, important and irrelevant."

    Glamorized by television and the captive attention of the press, the presidency was generating unreal expectations, "inviting the same kind of premature disappointment that destroys so many TV stars." The whole process was spinning faster, generating more conflict, more spectacle, more hype—and less attention to serious problems. The press was not a neutral bystander in these developments. "No longer are we just the messengers, observers on the sidelines, witch's mirrors faithfully telling society how it looks," O'Neill said. "Now we are deeply embedded in the democratic process itself, as principal actors rather than bit players or mere audience."

    O'Neill recommended a number of seismic shifts in the culture of the newsroom: an end to relentless negativity, abandonment of "the false premise that attack is the best way to flush out the truth," more tolerance of "the frailty of human institutions and their leaders," greater care in the treatment of public officials, a deeper aversion to hype, and "an openness of mind that encourages both self-criticism and outside criticism." Most of all, journalism needs "a generous spirit, infused with human warmth, as ready to see good as to suspect wrong, to find hope as well as cynicism"—a journalism finally concerned that "society has a chance to solve its problems."

    Although O'Neill's critique of the adversarial reflex was sure to draw the quickest objections (he even suggested that reporters should "make peace with the government," as if to invite jeers), his most challenging move was to deny his peers the comfort of the press box. By continuing to see themselves as outsiders, journalists fell victim to some dangerous illusions: that they had no investment in the health of the political system, that they could continue to watch the craziness—and feed it—without substantial cost, that their intention to be in no one's pocket meant that they were free of politics, when the reality was they were implicated in everything politics had become.

    All this was sure to grate on the ears of those whose heroes "stood up to the government" and told unpopular truths, as Squires put it. Michael Gartner, a former editor at the Wall Street Journal (later to become president of NBC News), reacted to O'Neill's speech by denying its central claim: that journalists are actors, rather than professional onlookers, and that they rather enjoy their rising influence. To Gartner this was "hogwash." Reporting the news was quite enough excitement for him and his colleagues; they didn't need, want, or have the status O'Neill gave them. "We just happen to have jobs that are very, very nice jobs," Gartner said. To O'Neill's contention that the "good of the country" was being overlooked in the breathless pace of the adversarial climate, Gartner replied: "That's marvelous language, but what is good for the country? Who knows what's good for the country? What's good for the country is truth and openness and aggressiveness and reporting what the news is. What is bad for the country is a press that becomes a handmaiden of government. Conspiratorial secrecy is what is bad for the country."

    This was the cult of toughness in action. O'Neill's point was that the press was already handmaiden to a cyclical process that was making a mockery of politics. This was bad for the nation, he reasoned. No, said Gartner, "what is bad for the country is backroom deals, papers working hand-in-hand with the government." The message was clear: O'Neill is going soft, and he wants to take the rest of us down with him. Gartner's tone spoke for many in his profession, but events were slowly working in O'Neill's favor. As the pattern he described etched itself further in, thoughtful journalists found it hard to deny their role as players in the system. This perception reached a painful peak with the 1988 presidential campaign, widely considered one of the worst in modern memory.

    The contest pitting Michael Dukakis against George Bush came at a turning point in United States history. With the Cold War winding down, Americans were about to enter a new and far more uncertain landscape. It was reasonable to expect from the campaign some semblance of a debate about the meaning of this and other large events—such as the looming savings and loan scandal, the biggest ever involving public funds. What the nation got instead was a series of manufactured issues that flowed directly from the downward spiral O'Neill had described. The Washington Post was among the newspapers that declined to endorse either candidate. The race, it editorialized, "was not just a domestic disappointment but an international embarrassment ... a screamingly tiresome, trivial, point-missing contest between two candidates who do not seem to be running for president so much as they seem to be having one of those headache-making fights that children are so good at staging in the back seat of the family car when everyone's nerves are pretty much gone anyway."

    Image seemed to be the entire territory on which the campaign was conducted, with flag burning, prison furloughs for rapists, and the Pledge of Allegiance as flashpoints used by Bush and his supporters to generate controversy and discredit the opposition. Struggling to respond, Dukakis came up with his own manipulative ploys, like climbing aboard an M-1 tank to demonstrate his readiness as would-be commander of the military. All this activity incorporated the news media, as a host of scholarly studies documented. The candidates did what they did based in part on their knowledge of newsroom routines. They played to their constituencies and the television cameras. But they also played to the assumptions of reporters and editors about what constitutes the campaign's "story."

    For much of the press, the story was interesting as a contest, an opportunity for one candidate to outmaneuver the other by demonstrating a superior grasp of the electioneering process. But the process had gained a false objectivity in the journalists' eyes. It seemed to be the way things worked, but since it was partly based on an understanding of the way journalists work, the process was often an artifact of news conventions and the ideas embedded in them.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, ix
Introduction: What We're Doing Isn't Working, 1
Part One / Origins
1 As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press: The Roots of
Public Journalism, 19
2 In Search of a Different Story: Journalists, Scholars,
and the Public Square, 56
Part Two / Practice
3 Applying Practice to Theory: Case Studies in Public
Journalism, 83
4 Does It Help the Citizen Decide? The Intellectual
Journey of the Virginian-Pilot, 128
5 Doing Less Harm: Public Journalism as Personal Tale, 156
Part Three / Reactions
6 Journalism Is What It Is: Critics React to the
Experiment, 177
7 The New York Times and the Washington Post on Public
Journalism, 207
Part Four / Lessons
8 Design Flaw or Driver Error: The Hazards of Going
Public, 251
9 What Was Public Journalism? The Idea in Built Form, 262
10 Conclusion: What Are Journalists For? 281
Notes, 301
Index, 329
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