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
Next month that will change when the paper starts an Oceans and
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
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"
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. …