Public Journalism: Leadership or Readership?
A Look at the Media Entry into Community Activism
Is the newest trend in journalism an answer to dwindling readership and
competition for circulation, or is it a true attempt at making the media civic
catalysts for the ills facing society today? Is Public Journalism an effort to
connect with readers, viewers and listeners? Does pure reporting include
involvement? Many leaders in the profession fear the participation of the media
in the very issues they cover.
Leadership or Readership?
Public Journalism: Leadership or Readership?
A Look at the Media Entry into Community Activism
Author: Ann Weichelt
Address: 1077 Longstreet Drive
Tallahassee, Florida 32311-4005
Public Journalism: Leadership or Readership?
A Look at the Media Entry into Community Activism
Public Agenda has been called "the hottest secular religion in the news
business." It is difficult to pin down exactly what this movement is because
it is still defining itself. Accordingly, identifying which projects are
examples of the trend and converting traditionalists to its ways can be very
difficult. What we will end up calling this trend is not certain at this time.
The movement has a variety of names ranging from Public Agenda, Public
Journalism, Civic Journalism, Public Service Journalism to Community-assisted
Reporting. For a Tallahassee project, the term used is Public Agenda.
Simply put, the movement has two goals: one is making news organizations
listen more closely to their audiences and, two is having the organizations play
more active roles in their communities. "Detachment is out; participation is
Experts are no longer the quote-machines of choice; readers' voices must be
As the movement grows, its components include "asking readers to help
decide what the paper covers and how it covers it; becoming a more active player
and less an observer; lobbying for change on the news pages; finding sources
whose voices are often unheard; and, above all, dramatically strengthening the
bonds between newspaper and community. At its heart is the assumption that a
newspaper should act as a catalyst for change. The newspapers are playing a
not unlike that of a community organizer."
The Poynter Institute began its work in 1975. The first of the Poynter
Papers was A Call to Leadership, a document that was "written at a time of
trouble for American journalism and the public it serves."
This initial document noted that the "time of trouble" included
~ Profits from the news business, while high compared to other industries,
~ A corporate culture has superseded a journalistic one.
~ Absentee owners and investors lack a passion for local communities.
~ Goals and standards are set by business managers without the
understanding or participation of the people who work for them.
~ Short-term financial interests and burdensome debt threaten the long-
term health of the news business.
All around us, the forces of social, technological, and economic change
challenge traditional modes of thinking, production, and delivery. Some
of the conditions facing news organizations are, no doubt, cyclical and
will ameliorate with an upturn in the economy. But others are clearly
structuralDthey will change us foreverDand demand new kinds of leadership.
A great irony results from the combination of these forces: Never has the
quality of journalism been so high, yet the morale of journalists so low.
Reporters are suspicious of the motives of their editors. The editors
worry about the values of business managers. Some news organizations are
in turmoil, fighting what amounts to a cultural cold war over values and
A failure to act now threatens the news business with obsolescence, or
worse, irrelevance. Determined, high-minded, and inspirational leadership
is the best hope for our franchise, our profession, and the citizens we
In 1992, it was the suggestion of Roy Peter Clark to add some guidelines
to the overlay of procedures in all newsrooms and editorial rooms for the
survival of the media.
First, according to Clark, newspapers must sink roots into their
communities. News organizations must accept their ownership and leadership as
public trusts and that serve the public interest. This involves taking the long
view, investing in the community, and letting local executives create a sense of
Next, Clark encourages news organizations to share financial and strategic
information, including profit margins, revenues, and budgets. This creates a
"shared vision" and builds trust through full disclosure. This disclosure helps
news people and business people to find a common language to understand their
shared purposes and reconcile their conflicting values.
"Embracing change" will help an enterprise to thrive in an environment of
persistent change. Investment in research and development will take advantage
of technologies created by other industries. Clark encourages involving members
of groups that the enterprise wants to serve by involving them in decision
making. This might entail forming partnerships with special interest media,
community news organs, and alternative publications in order to expand the
enterprise's influence without diluting precious resources.
Along with these suggestions come the more obvious ones for keeping up
change, innovation, and serve as coping strategies for new futures. It is
important to inspire the next generation to set high and consistent standards,
and reward risk taking and innovation. There must be the creation of a climate
in news rooms where "people read and discuss important ideas, where they develop
interests both deep and broad, where they can renew themselves to avoid burnout
and dead ends."
Finally, Clark encourages news organizations to "build our common public
life." He encourages journalists to never forget the business they are in.
organizations should provide a forum for public discussion "to preserve and
enhance democratic society." As an example of the need for the profession to
remember what their charge or assignment is, he reiterates the elements of the
1947 Hutchins Commission:
A truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events
in a context which gives them meaning.
A forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.
The projection of a representative picture of the constituent groups in
The presentation and clarification of the goals and values of the
Full access to the day's intelligence.
Beyond all of the suggestions for news organizations and for news
enterprises, perhaps Clark's strongest admonition is to "deserve the First
After Clark's Poynter Papers: No. 1, came G. Stuart Adams' Poynter Papers:
No. 2, Notes Towards a Definition of Journalism: Understanding an old craft as
an art form.
Journalism is made; it doesn't just happen. So the language we use to see
it and to teach it must be akin to the language of art. The language of
art encourages students to enter the imagination of the artist and
meditate on how the artist does what he or she does.
According to Adams, a definition of journalism contains at least four
elements: reporting, judging, a public voice, and the "here and now." "The
concept of journalism embraces and gives a place to notions of commentary,
judgment, and criticism."
Journalism is also public. We distinguish in our minds between voices
that are specialized or private, as in correspondence, and voices
conceived for public consumption. Journalism, along with novels, short
stories, speeches, and proclamations, is created for public consumption.
Thus its voice and vocabulary are colored by didactic responsibilitiesDby
explicitness, by an absence of allusions that have meaning only in the
private sphere, and by the absence of a vocabulary that has meaning solely
within a specialized discourse such as science.
It is with Jay Rosen's Community Connectedness: Passwords for Public
Journalism, Poynter Papers: No 3, that the goal of public journalism was stated,
"to create journalism that listens to citizens and reinvigorates public life."
In the forward by Roy Peter Clark, a short chronicle of the history of public
journalism is created.
In ancient times, say 1975, something quite predictable would happen if
the words "community," "connections," and "journalism" were mentioned in
the same sentence: principled journalists would duck for cover.
These committed professionals believedDand some still believeDthat
connections with community could only result in sacrifice of duty: caving
in and selling out. A journalism inspired by connections with community
could be little more than chamber of commerce puffery, dictated by the
business managers of newspapers who power-lunched with bankers at
Two decades later, community connectedness has a whole new meaning, a
beneficent one. The words have reappeared in the heavens, but forming an
intriguing new constellation, with a powerful influence on the lives of
journalists and citizens. One of the new stargazers who is reading and
interpreting these signs is a young journalism professor, Jay Rosen, a
wise man from the east, who is changing the way journalists understand
their vocation and its influence on public life.
For Rosen, the newspaper should be an engine of the centripetal forces of
community. An yet there are centrifugal forces at work, too, threatening
to fragment the society and undermine the democracy. Readers are
disappearing, community ties are loosening, civility in public discourse
is disappearing, newsrooms are hotbeds of cynicism, and people feel
increasingly alienated from the public institutions that once nurtured
As far as many of its proponents are concerned, the movement had its roots
in the reporting of the 1988 presidential campaign. Many believed that the
had been transfixed by negative campaign tactics and were oblivious to issues
that mattered to the voters.
Kansas editor Buzz Merritt, and a then Buffalo reporter, Rosen, met at a
seminar sponsored by the Kettering Foundation. Merritt and Rosen found common
ground. Both are now full-time proponents of the trend. Merritt is taking a
year off to write a book on public journalism and Rosen is the director of the
nonprofit Project on Public Life and the Press at New York University.
While many consider Rosen one of the "fathers" of the "community
connectedness" movement, he cites three professionals with helping develop the
movement, and lending legitimacy to it with their call for change to the
In 1990, James K. Batten, chief executive of Knight-Ridder, Inc., gave a
lecture at the University of Kansas "emphasizing the importance to newspapers of
community spiritDby which he meant `the willingness of people to care about
they live and to wade in to help solve its problems.'"
According to Batten, those "who feel a real sense of connection to the
places they live" are more likely to become newspaper readers. He noted a
continued and growing disinterest and disconnectedness of people with their
communities and their responsibility in those communities. "If communities
continue to erode, how can we expect newspapers to continue to prosper, over the
One month later, Burl Osborne, editor of the Dallas Morning News, was
interviewed as the incoming president of the American Society of Newspaper
Editors. Osborne noted the "extent to which people are isolated from public
life, from the self-governing process, and from the source of our public
A third, and perhaps the most influential of the three professionals
identified by Rosen, is David Broder of The Washington Post. Broder published
a series of columns in 1990, in which he urged his colleagues to take more
responsibility for the deteriorating quality of political discourse.
We cannot allow the 1990 election to become another exercise in public
disillusionment and political cynicism. It is time for those of us in the
world's freest press to become activists, not on behalf of a particular
party or politician, but on behalf of the process of self-government. We
have to help reconnect politics and governmentDwhat happens in the
campaign and what happens afterward in public policyDif we are to have
accountability and genuine democracy in this country.
According to Rosen, the first and ongoing experiment with this feeling
"it was time to do something about the withdrawal and disengagement of citizens,
and the press would have to be the do-er," took place in 1988 at the Ledger-
Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia. The paper published a series of articles
detailing a host of long-term problems the city had to face. When there was
little response to the series, the editors decided to take the experiment a step
further. They organized a public meeting where residents could discuss the
future of their city and the problems they felt should be faced and wanted to
Because of the response to that meeting, a new civic movement was born,
United Beyond 2000, that was led by Jack Swift, the editor of the newspaper.
purpose of the group was to get a public dialog working. The group sponsored
other public forums. Swift described the goals of his paper's experiment:
trying to find every way we can to help citizens empower themselves, get
in their community, work together on mutual concerns, and make a difference."
The effort caused the Ledger-Enquirer to make the cover of Knight-Ridder's
1989 annual report, and Swift was named the winner of the company's yearly
excellence award. This gave the corporate stamp of approval to the newspaper's
risky step into community activism.
According to Rosen, the most recent projects since 1990 include The Sun in
Bremerton, Washington, The Wichita Eagle, The Charlotte Observer, The Star-
Tribune in Minneapolis, and The Portland (Me.) Press Herald. To some, these new
initiatives may seem like resuscitated old-fashioned newspaper "crusades."
While several of the projects borrow some of the spirit of an earlier era
when activism and journalism weren't seen as opposites, Rosen says what
distinguishes community connectedness from simple crusading is the emphasis on
public discussion and civic involvement. "The experiments put the authority of
the newspaper behind a simple but powerful proposition: that politics and public
life ought to address the community's deepest concerns, and ought to engage
citizens in the process."
Briefly, here are the projects that others used to embrace the idea of
The Ledger-Enquirer, along with the organization of public meetings,
sponsored other public forums and backyard barbecues where residents could trade
views and discover common ground. The project of the Enquirer caused polemic
discussions among professionals who saw the activities as risky. "But the
Columbus project can be seen as the first in a wave of newspaper experiments
tried to put the words of Batten, Osborne, and Broder into practice."
The Sun caused community concern about the preservation of open spaces
encroaching development after an editorial about plans by developers. Because
of the response, the paper gathered 150 community leaders into a steering
committee that conducted public forums about open space preservation. As a
result of the forums, citizens nominated parcels of land to be designated "open
space" and gathered signatures to put a bond issue on the ballot to purchase the
Buzz Merritt, editor of Knight-Ridder's Wichita Eagle, was concerned about
the media's preoccupation with charges and countercharges and poll results. A
week after the 1988 election, Merritt wrote a column. Because the politicians
wouldn't change, he asked for an alliance among the voters, the politicians and
the journalists. Positive change was his goal.
The first identified project of the movement was Merritt's The Voter
Project, which was carried out with the help of the local ABC television
affiliate. The project involved surveys and focus group of readers and
culminated in six Sunday in-depth articles leading up to the 1990 elections.
The next explorations into community connectedness took place at The
Wichita Eagle. The next project by The Wichita Eagle was called "The People
Project" that "undertook a cooperative campaign to encourage residents to
their own approach to the city's most serious problems: education, crime,
political gridlock, and stresses on the family." The project included in-
depth interviews. Others were invited to telephone, fax or write their thoughts
about what was wrong and how to fix it.
The paper took an activist style with its coverage of elections aimed at
improving voter participation and strengthening political debate. A list of ten
key issues important in the statewide election was used as a focus of continuing
coverage. The paper announced its intention of engaging readers and endeavoring
to force the leading candidates to respond.
The project included a local television station and radio station. The
project consisted of three community-wide "opportunity fairs," which functioned
as forums for people with common interests to contact, to exchange ideas and to
begin work on solutions.
Another project, The Charlotte Project: Helping citizens take back
democracy became the title and topic of a fourth Poynter Paper. In 1992, The
Charlotte Observer, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and WSOC-TV,
pledged to give up the "horse race" approach to the 1992 campaign and to
focus their reporting on what residents said mattered to them. A "voters'
agenda" was created out of interviews with readers. Follow-up surveys and
meetings with citizens were planned to help the Observer keep its focus on
the public's concerns, rather than machinations of campaign insiders. The
Observer's approach won wide notice among campaign reporters and editors
for being more in tune with the serious mood of voters in the 1992
A study of the fourth Poynter Paper reveals a thoughtful and objective
at the project. The report covers how the project began and about what became
of the initial objectives of the project, and it speaks to and gives examples of
the "new" approach to coverage of the election issues and how the reporters and
editors covered the candidates. The project was evaluated, and thoughtful
comments were made about what changed and what was learned by the participants
in the project. The "what we learned" portion of the report includes a section
on "what next?" and a suggestion of what organizational obstacles might be
encountered by others.
In Minneapolis, over 130 "neighborhood roundtables" were conducted by The
Star-Tribune. Again, the purpose was getting the readers, leaders, and
citizens together to discuss and focus on questions of public concern. Topics
ranged from health care and race relations to the economy. Because of the
response, (an estimated 1,500 residents responded to the call), there were 1.5
new editorial staff positions created. These staff were charged with the
responsibility to design and implement projects that would "enable our readers
to reconnect with their newspaper, their political system, their communities,
The last example noted by Rosen was The Portland (Me.) Press Herald
experience. The whole initiative was begun with one reporter's assignment to
thoroughly cover and research the problems with Maine's worker's compensation
system. The four-part series drew so much attention and public response that
paper assembled the leading players in the system. These leaders were charged
with the responsibility of dealing fairly and competently with the issue and
coming up with solutions to the huge, disastrous mess that was the system.
The "ought" is essential, for community connectedness has a prominent
moral dimension. It prescribed for any community a preferred state of
affairs by stressing action over drift, engagement over withdrawal,
deliberation and debate over silence and denial. The journalists who are
pushing the movement forward have declared an end to their neutrality on
these questions. More than any pet project or chosen solution, then, the
"agenda" behind community connectedness is simply that public life should
workDit should solve problems, engage citizens, and produce a useful
discussion. To advance such an agenda implies a rethinking of the
journalist's task, and this, ultimately, is what the movement is aboutDthe
very different view of responsibility represented by the experiments in
Behind this movement are two powerful foundations and mass media
conglomeratesDthe John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Gannett
newspapers' Freedom Forum. Although not officially part of the public
movement, Gannett newspapers have been going in the same direction under the
company's News 2000 program.
Currently, 171 news organizations are working with the Project on Public
Life and 95 initiatives are under way. Each public journalism project is
tailored to the local community.
According to Presstime, two other newspapers have taken up the challenge
in 1993. The managing editor of the Marietta Times, Robert C. Gabordi, invites
the readers of the newspaper call him with their views. This forum has now been
expanded into a radio call-in show. At one reader's suggestion, the paper ran
a free 12-page, ad-free tabloid called "Stop the Hurting." It was written by
readers, community leaders, experts and victims and was aimed to stop the
epidemic of domestic violence. As a follow-up, the paper sponsored a public
forum on the topic. An outgrowth of the meeting was the formation of a
"survivor's bank" that loans money on a short-term basis to victims of violent
In January, the Detroit Free Press announced a "Children First" campaign.
Jane Daugherty was named the project director, and was assigned four reporters
to help her staff the project. The publisher of the Free Press transferred
$14,000 that had originally been allocated for executive office renovations to
the project fund. In May, the Free Press sponsored a day-long conference on
preventing violence against children. "I don't think we'll ever cover
issues the same again. We tend to ask now, 'How can this be fixed?' I don't
think we asked that before. We would write these moving scenarios and leave
hanging in midair," said Albers.
The brutal killing of a child by a sniper as he was on his way to school
resulted in only a small story in the Chicago Sun-Times. The editor, Dennis A.
Britton, thought there would be a commotion from the public. There wasn't.
Britton was moved to make an unusual front-page plea: Please don't let this be
someone else's problem. It's yours. It's mine. Let's together retake our
At the same time, the editor of the Chicago Tribune, Jack Fuller, made a
similar appeal: "not let the murder of a single child in our metropolitan area
go unnoticed." Except for about 100 letters, the response to the editors'
entreaties has been minimal.
The public journalism movement is evident in Tallahassee. This summer,
Harwood Group, a national public-issues research firm, talked with Tallahassee's
citizens. They reported to the Public Agenda, a new project that is "designed
to strengthen community connections by fostering grass-roots dialogue about
common problems and solutions."
The sponsors of the project, the Tallahassee Democrat, WCTV, Florida State
University and Florida A&M University, are financed by the Pew Charitable
The project was introduced by the Democrat in November. The Democrat has run a
series on the Public Agenda project. The series highlights the results of a
community survey conducted by Kerr & Downs, a Tallahassee Research firm.
A newspaper editorial invites Tallahasseeans to become involved in their
community ... involved in making positive changes. The editorial stressed that
Tallahasseeans "as a group" are "disengaged" and they "take democracy for
granted" and are "apathetic, alienated, angry." The Democrat editorial proposes
that a citizen "can take part by just showing up."
A Democrat article recommended Daniel Yankelovich's Coming to Public
Judgment: Making democracy work in a complex world as suggested reading for
interested in the arena of Public Journalism. Yankelovich, who was educated at
Harvard University and the Sorbonne, has pioneered many research techniques that
have become standard in the field of assessing the impact of social values on
public policy and consumer behavior. He is the co-founder of The Public Agenda
Yankelovich says the media are among America's most dynamic institutions.
Yet he says, they are difficult to work with. "They are always busy. Producing
TV news or a daily newspaper in today's world is an extraordinarily complex
In addition, the media are dominated by a powerful subculture that repels
outsiders and powerfully conditions insiders to its rules and values." But
In recent years, the media have grown increasingly conscious of their vast
influence; they take pride in it, but do not know what to do with it.
They are more comfortable when criticizing others than when being
criticized, and they tend to be thin-skinned, prickly, and defensive.
Despite these oddities, it is worthwhileDindeed, indispensableDto find a
way to work with them, for they hold the key to strengthening the public.
To advance public judgement, it will be necessary to support those in the
media who see the standard for measuring journalism to be its effect on
the quality of public deliberation. Consciousness raising and presenting
expert fact do not by themselves do the job the communications media
should be doing. Media that tell the public everything about an issue
except what its choices are have not done their job.
According to Yankelovich, his work with the media has convinced him that
"the media [are] willing to acknowledge that expert debate can be taken only so
far in a democracy like ours." The Public Agenda group indicates that the media
have "found a belief that a more constructive and thoughtful forum of public
opinion is desirable and can be achieved."
Yankelovich's first work with the Public Agenda organization, with the
support of the Markle Foundation and the media, was in 1982 with a "first
campaign in Des Moines, Iowa. It was called HealthVote 82. The campaign was
aimed at helping citizens understand the issue of rising health care costs and
to think through alternative means for addressing it. The project had several
It was visibly supported by leadership groups holding opposing points of
It specifically attempted to move the public beyond mass opinion by
addressing important misperceptions identified in preliminary research.
It invited the public to consider a range of choices with the pros and the
cons clearly spelled out.
It featured intensive and repetitive presentations of public choices on
television, radio, in the daily newspaper, and in more than two hundred
community meetings organized by the project.
It culminated with a HealthVote "ballot" distributed through the Des
Moines Register that reiterated the pros and cons of the choices and
emphasized leadership's desire to know the public's considered views.
The copyright date of Yankelovich's book is 1991, so it is interesting
he cites this project as "the first public choice campaign." No reference is
made to the aforementioned public journalism projects. He indicates that Public
Agenda has worked with more than 35 television stations and 20 daily newspapers
in more than 20 communities to conduct public choice campaigns. In his Notes,
the television stations include network affiliates in Baltimore, Denver,
Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Raleigh, and Seattle. The newspapers
included the Des Moines Register, Kansas City Star, the Philadelphia Inquirer,
the Nashville Tennessean, and the Wilmington News Journal.
Public choice campaigns demand a serious commitment from broadcasters and
newspapers. TV stations are asked to broadcast spots and documentaries
intensively for a period of six to ten weeks. They are asked to devote
their own public affairs program to the issue at hand and to cover the
issue in the newscasts. They are asked to promote community meetings and
the distribution and results of the balloting. The Public Agenda has
deliberately sought the participation of commercial broadcasterDrather
than public television and radioDand has been successful in enlisting
What is asked of newspapers may well be unprecedented. In addition to
devoting news, editorial, and promotional resources to the issue,
newspapers are asked to print and distribute a special supplement
featuring a choice "ballot" as a public service without charge.
The participation of TV stations and newspapers in public choice campaigns
has several advantages. Their reach is almost universal. Most people
turn to news on television and in newspapers to learn about important
policy questions. And, media are generally perceived to be balanced and
disinterested in their coverage of issues.
Moreover, growing numbers of media professionals are showing an unexpected
receptivity to the concept of ["]working through["]. This group sees the
public choice campaign as a reasonable extension of their current work.
They are already covering the key issues. The aim is to present different
points of view so that citizens understand them and can grapple with them
seriously. For the more thoughtful media professional who acknowledges
the complexity of the issues the country faces and who take pride in
promoting honest debate, there is considerable discomfort with "business
as usual." The Public Agenda's stress on the need to go beyond
consciousness raising strikes a responsive chord.
To Yankelovich, there are three stages for advancing the three-stage
judgment process. One is consciousness raising, the second is "working
and the third is resolution. Yankelovich uses the term "choicework" to refer to
a variety of techniques for helping the public expedite working through. David
Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, coined the term "choicework."
Several forms of work are involved in choicework. One is the work of
transposing choices from the expert's to the public's framework. Another
is the work of overcoming obstacles, and a third is the work involved in
making the choices. Each of the various forms of choicework engage
In conclusion, Yankelovich notes that
To preserve America's preeminence in democracy, there is something for
everyone to doDaverage citizens, the institutions that conduct public
forums, people in positions of leadership, experts, government officials,
the mediaDall of us. That is the way things get done in a democracy.
While there is little written criticism of this new movement of Public
Journalism, maybe because it is so new and has not been embraced by the majority
of the professions that are involved, one thoughtful article raised the concerns
of journalists in the field. Should journalists be just "quote machines of
choice?" "My problem is that we're running around saying 'Eureka, we've found
it.'" says Eugene L. Roberts, Jr., managing editor of the New York Times. "I'm
not sure we ever lost it.
In a Letter to the Editor that was in response to the American Journalism
Review article, Berl Schwartz, general manager of the State News in East
So-called public journalism is an old concept with a new name, but its
return after several decades of elitism is certainly welcome.
Once upon a time newspapers knew what was going on in their communities
because their newsroom makeup represented virtually all strata of society
(if not all colors or ethnic groups). Remember when larger newspapers had
labor reporters? They went the way of hot type about the same time
reporters became interchangeable with lawyers in dress and compassion.
Why is public journalism emerging now? Because the '60s
generationDactivists who turned to journalism as an outlet for their
idealismDhave come of age.
Another response to the article came from Tom Field, editor of the Deming
Headlight in Deming, New Mexico. He said
Re: "public journalism," Come on, this is supposed to be our job
description! Let's not treat it like a revolution.
The real story is to turn the spotlight not on those who practice "public
journalism," but those who don't.
Remember, no matter the size of the city or the staff, we all work for
community newspapers, and if we don't put community first, then there will
be no newspapers.
Leonard Downie, Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post, reported "No
matter how strongly I feel about something that's going on out there, my job is
not to try to influence the outcome. I just don't want to cross that line, no
matter how well-meaning the reasoning might be for crossing it." Downie thinks
there are two factors that have contributed to the public journalism's growth:
a desire to boost circulation and to win popularity for editors uncomfortable
with criticism. "It appears that you are doing something good and then people
will love you for it. I'm just not going to worry about being loved or not."
Downie doesn't vote, he says he rarely reads the editorial pages, and
indicates that he tries not to form an opinion on the issues the Post covers.
He says his job is to "do nothing except tell readers what is happening."
Yet Chicago Sun-Times editor, Dennis A. Britton, says, "I come from a
journalism tradition that shies away from advocacy. But we're a gritty city
newspaper that should make a difference in people's lives. If we don't call the
community to action, then we aren't good citizens."
Jane Daugherty at the Detroit Free Press, like most of her colleagues who
have taken the activist role to heart, often wonders how this brand of advocacy
goes over with other journalists. Recently, she had a chance to find out when
she spoke about "Children First" before the national convention of Investigative
Reporters and Editors in New York City. "I thought, 'These are the cynics who
are going to be really critical of stepping wildly over the line, but they were
wildly enthusiastic. No one raised the first question. All they wanted to know
was how to do it.'"
The issue seems to be one of how close a newspaper should get to its own
stories. As editors consider the implications of attempting to become a part of
the solution rather than just a community chronicler, the issue becomes
"For some, however, the resulting programs and the likely boost to a newspaper's
image are rewards worth the gamble." The line between journalism and activism
has become blurred.
In a November 1994 column, Broder of The Washington Post, whom Rosen
credits with being one of the initiators of the interest in the public
movement, notes there are three new initiatives that promote activism of the
citizenry. Broder calls these initiatives "citizenship movement[s]." They
recognize a need for eliminating intrusive, top-heavy government in Washington.
This, he surmises, demands a more engaged citizenry.
Several private organizations are striving to encourage and bolster that
kind of activism. One of the most important efforts, according to Broder is
being started by the National Civic League, an old, established organization.
It is working with John Gardner, who is the founder of both the Urban Coalition
and Common Cause, and who used to be a member of the Cabinet. The name of their
alliance is the Alliance for National Renewal. It joins the forces of 100
organizations that endeavor to cultivate local leadership. According to
the Alliance will give "attention to local innovators ... and to spread the good
news about the successes of their projects" in order to encourage others to
A second enterprise is funded by the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee. It
is called The New Citizenship Project. John P. Waters, president, says, "We
to use a lot of the experimentation going on at the state and local level to
about what opportunities there are to do things better by having them locally,
not nationally directed."
The third organizational project cited by Broder involves the American
Civic Forum. It plans to issue a "call for a new citizenship" in the same vein
as the other two groups. This is a non-partisan effort led by Harry C. Boyte of
the University of Minnesota. Reportedly, a White House domestic policy aide,
William Galston, is working with the group. "Instead of mainly providing
services and making top-down decisions, it should act as a catalyst ... and
provide tools for citizens and communities to solve their own problems."
The reason for all this activity as far as Broder is concerned is a
cynicism with the citizenry that was reflected in the most recent election. He
says the election also projected apathy. The cynicism and apathy call for
renewed grass roots involvement, an active citizenry knowledgeable about how
democracy is supposed to work, and a serious look at the issues facing all
communities and the country.
In listing the names and phone numbers of the organizations he cites,
Broder is, in essence, putting out a call to arms. He encourages those who are
interested to become involved. His parting works are: "Remember. The battle to
replace cynicism with citizenship really does begin at home." Although Broder
titles these initiatives a "citizenship movement," they have many of the
trappings of the public journalism or public agenda movement that are taking
place in the press.
Are the activities of The Star in Bremerton, Washington, The Wichita
The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, and the Detroit Free Press the forerunners of
a movement that has had a number of starting points? Are many of these
enterprises, while operating under different titles, such as Public Journalism
or Public Agenda, working toward a common goal? Are the media enterprises and
the cooperative efforts between media driving toward similar accomplishments?
Will it be the responsibility of the foundations and organizations or the
public obligation of the press to lead the cause? Is there a prophetic
coincidence that the press and a variety of corporations and organizations have
begun to move in a similar direction? What will the role of the mainstream
The skirmishing has begun and it is certain to bring into play internal
conflicts within the press between what we see as our own moral
imperatives and the ethical imperatives that demand fairness and
disinterested professionalism in the presentation of the news. It will be
an interesting test of our character.