'Public Journalism' Aims to Revitalize Public Life Controversial Trend Is Response to Negative Attitudes toward the Press and a Disillusioned Citizenry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public journalism also has to do with changing the way reporters think about their communities. …