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Imagine St. Louis-50 Case Studies in the Failures of Public Journalism

By Corrigan, Don | St. Louis Journalism Review, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Imagine St. Louis-50 Case Studies in the Failures of Public Journalism


Corrigan, Don, St. Louis Journalism Review


In April, the Sunday Post-Dispatch marks one full year of "Imagine St. Louis." Despite the fluffy accolades for the Imagine section from the Pew Center and its cheerleaders, the most notable achievement of "Imagine St. Louis" is in providing 50 case studies In the failings of public journalism.

Even using public journalism's own benchmarks, "Imagine St. Louis" has failed to measure up when it comes to such criteria as reaching the common citizen or engaging the public in democratic decision-making.

The section also has failed in public journalism's mission of becoming "a fair-minded participant" in civic life, while avoiding bias. Whether the issue is urban sprawl, building new bridges or examining the future of urban cores--the Post's agenda is not imaginary at all. It's far too obvious.

One of the more amusing case studies of public journalism's flaws and naivete arrived on lawns on Sunday, Nov. 14, 1999. That "Imagine St. Louis" edition was headlined: "The Cardinals say they need a new ballpark soon. They're hoping fans here are more supportive than their counterparts in Minnesota."

The main article in the Nov. 14 package noted that the Cardinals' management wants a new $250 million stadium to replace Busch. stadium, which has benefitted from $17.1 million in improvements itself over the past four seasons. The Cardinal organization wants the new stadium to have roughly the same 50,000 number of seats, but it wants to have far more premium seats with extras, such as waiter service, for corporate customers.

The Post sponsored a town hall forum on the new stadium issue at Charlie Gitto's Restaurant, which was chosen because of its baseball history. Only two citizens showed up. A man on the street outside paraded with a sign that said if the owners wanted a new ballpark, they should borrow money from the players to pay for it.

In this public-journalism-style forum or "charrette," as the Post has dubbed such exchanges, the news people from the paper and a TV station covering the event heavily outnumbered the actual citizens who came to "engage" or discuss the issue.

Citizen letters in the stadium "print charrette," appearing in the next week's issue of Imagine, were not supportive of the Cardinals' owners demands for a new stadium. Some letters suggested that there were more outstanding priorities for the city. Others were adamant that not a cent of tax money should go to subsidize a privately owned stadium.

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