Magazine article Editor & Publisher

In Praise of Public Journalism; Editors in the Northwest Say Such Programs Are off and Running at Their Newspapers

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

In Praise of Public Journalism; Editors in the Northwest Say Such Programs Are off and Running at Their Newspapers

Article excerpt

Public Journalism, an emerging idea that encourages newspapers to exchange their traditional objectivity for an activist role in community affairs, appears to have found a receptive audience in the Northwest.

After hearing a pitch from New York University professor Jay Rosen, a crusader for the philosophy, five regional editors and one publisher reported that public journalism is off and running at their newspapers.

At a panel convened last month at the 66th annual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association in Spokane, Wash., Seattle Times associate ate managing editor Cynthia Nash said her paper has sponsored open-ended focus groups, conducted a statewide phone poll to find out "what's on people's minds," started a weekly Forum page, and put together two senatorial candidates for a "conversation" with five voters.

"These, are real people with real concerns" that include family life, financial security, health, crime and employment, Nash said.

The Times also solicits views from readers on what they read in the paper, prompting hundreds of letters.

"And there is an acceptance in the newsroom on readers' ideas," Nash said. "This is significant."

Pamela Meals, who recently left as publisher of the Olympian, Olympia, Wash., to become publisher of the Boise Idaho Statesman, said the Olympian's foray into public journalism "made editors more popular and created greater visibility, for the Gannett-owned daily.

The Olympian published two special sections in successive weeks that covered such topics as the county's infrastructure needs, new business and industrial development, and the quality of life in the area.

In seeking citizen participation in the project, Meals recalled, the Olympian learned what people wanted to improve their lives.

"Olympia is going through rapid growth, but our readers wanted less dependence on government jobs, preservation of their natural environment, businesses that help improve the quality of life and uniform health and safety regulations," she said.

"This is a marvelous role for newspapers to play - to make these things happen. Otherwise, various groups will bicker among themselves and not come to the table to learn how to resolve whole community problems."

The Olympian and the Thurston County Regional Planning Council co-operated on a project to assess the economic needs of the county, Meals related.

Under the direction of the councils chair and Olympian executive editor Vikki Porter, a series of meetings were held throughout the county.

The Vancouver (Wash.) Columbian became involved in public journalism to the extent that it restructured the newsroom to eliminate most traditional beats in favor of "topic areas," said editor Tom Koenninger.

The paper has run a "Kids and Violence" series, in which staffers met with a cross-section of residents.

"The series had a high impact," Koenninger said. "There was a litany of problems and we also found that many people blamed the messenger for crime. But it was a gratifying way to connect with the community, and I feel very good about what we are doing.

"It's not easy, but its a way to help the community. We want to know how people go about their daily lives. What are their successes and their failures?"

The editor said the paper also tries to aid people in penetrating government bureaucracy.

The Columbian sets up town hall meetings and editor-public sessions each quarter so the citizenry "can tell us what we're doing right and, constructively, what were doing wrong" he said. …

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