Florida Atlantic University
When staffers at the Savannah Morning News began their 1998 election coverage, they decided to sponsor backyard barbecues around the city. Reporters tapped their sources within a strong network of neighborhood associations and asked people to hold a barbecue for 10 to 15 of their neighbors. The newspaper provided the food. The neighbors provided the conversation.
The insights gained from listening to these conversations ultimately drove the newspaper's coverage of the campaign and changed the focus of the coverage. As reporters listened to the people talk, they realized the primary area of concern centered on the city's drainage problems. The candidates had been talking about housing, an issue that had much less salience with the citizens. The backyard barbecue conversations were a reality check on what earlier polls revealed and what candidates were saying, said Morning News Managing Editor Daniel Suwyn. “We have a mantra in our newsroom, ” Suwyn said. “We are only as good as the quality of our conversations” (personal communication, March 6, 2002).
Journalists are discovering that by listening to citizen conversations they can enrich their news reports, and that realization is changing newsgathering methods. The Savannah newspaper is one of a growing number of news media organizations that are tapping creative research methods in their efforts to understand their communities and citizens' views better. From backyard barbecues and advisory panels to town meetings and newly defined focus groups,