A Newsroom's Fortress Walls Collapse: At the Spokesman-Review, Editors and Reporters Explain 'What We Do and Why' and Involve 'Citizens, at Some Level, in News Planning and Decision-Making.'

By Smith, Steven A. | Nieman Reports, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

A Newsroom's Fortress Walls Collapse: At the Spokesman-Review, Editors and Reporters Explain 'What We Do and Why' and Involve 'Citizens, at Some Level, in News Planning and Decision-Making.'


Smith, Steven A., Nieman Reports


First there was "fortress newsroom. That was the term I used in a series of speeches for the Pew Center for Civic Journalism in the early 1990's dealing with the perceived disconnect between citizens and their newspapers. Fortress newsroom, I argued, was the walled enclave where journalists practiced their craft in a "just the facts" environment, using selective notions of objectivity and balance to shield themselves from the consequences of their work.

In fortress newsroom, readers are something of a necessary inconvenience. We need their business, but not their interference. In fortress newsroom, objectivity means independence defined by separation. Journalists report on their communities but cannot be part of their communities. And listening to readers, trying to understand their interests and motivations, is the business of ad reps and circulation managers.

That the fortress newsroom model was failing newspaper journalism became apparent in the late 1980's and early 1990's as all of us began, finally, to wage war against the double-whammy of declining readership and plummeting credibility. I first challenged the model during early civic journalism experiments at The Wichita Eagle where I was managing editor. Those Eagle projects were built around the notion that newspaper journalists and citizens were active partners in the support of democratic institutions and that citizen voices were the bedrock of effective public service journalism.

But attacking fortress newsroom through the frame of civic journalism wasn't easy or effective. Civic journalism was too great a flashpoint, and its critics successfully derailed the conversation with red herring assertions that civic or public journalism was equivalent to community boosterism.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) credibility project of 1997-1999 refocused the conversation. In two far-ranging ASNE credibility surveys, one of the key findings suggested that newspapers could slowly rebuild citizen trust by better explaining news values and decision-making and by engaging in conversations with readers about journalism.

"This research suggests that most of the public is fairly generous in giving us credit for trying to explain ourselves to them," Judy Pace Christie wrote in the overview to a report on the 1999 credibility survey. "The best outcome, of course, is that the education will be reciprocal."

Therein lies the foundation for the "transparent newsroom," the antithesis of the fortress model. In the transparent newsroom, citizens are partners in the news conversation, not just passive consumers of news and information. In fortress newsroom, where separation is a primary value, there are no mechanisms to foster conversations between journalists and citizens. In the transparent newsroom, the opposite should be true; connection becomes a primary value and journalists have multiple, programmatic ways to ensure that the education occurring through conversation is, as Christie suggested, fully reciprocal.

I've experimented with various transparency strategies through the years at four different newspapers. In Wichita, editors went to malls and recreation centers and set up tables inviting readers to discuss their newspaper concerns. In Colorado Springs, we invited various community groups into the newsroom to audit and critique the paper's journalism. In Salem, Oregon, open news meetings attracted community visitors almost daily.

The Transparent Newsroom

Our work at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, incorporates many of those earlier experiments but is enhanced by aggressive exploitation of the Internet, an ideal medium for journalist-citizen interaction.

As suggested by the ASNE studies, our goal is to improve the newspaper's credibility in our communities by better explaining what we do and why, by soliciting and then listening to reader criticism, and by involving citizens, at some level, in news planning and decision-making. …

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A Newsroom's Fortress Walls Collapse: At the Spokesman-Review, Editors and Reporters Explain 'What We Do and Why' and Involve 'Citizens, at Some Level, in News Planning and Decision-Making.'
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