Get Engaged!
A Prescription for an Ailing Press

By Burton St. John III

You would think that, as a former public relations executive and scholar/observer of mainstream news operations, I would not experience an abrupt “sea change” concerning the traditional press. Additionally, as an academic who researches how journalists go about making sense of the world so as to report news, I am bound to keep up (as best I can) with the current storm of changes for newsrooms that have been prompted by rapid-fire technological developments and ever-present business model mutations. Nevertheless, back in the spring of 2009, I sat down for lunch with an old reliable news purveyor and found him almost unrecognizable.

It was Newsweek. The first issue of its format change. And it was foreign and disturbing, a plastic surgery that had gone really bad. The magazine was almost completely eviscerated of any original reporting; instead, it was filled with the work of columnists, Fareed Zakaria and Robert Samuelson, to name two. What few legitimate stories appeared were smothered by large photos, charts designed by over-caffeinated graphic designers and surrounding pages filled with short blurb-like interviews and giant pull quotes. In the weeks to come, it would not get any better: Newsweek started to place on its feedback page anonymous comments from its website, Twitter and Facebook. What is going on here, I thought; this is supposed to be Newsweek, not Opinionweek.

What is surprising is that apparently the editors at Newsweek failed to ask themselves, “Is this really the way to engage our news consumers?”

In retrospect, it became painfully obvious that Newsweek offered its own version of what is increasingly happening in many mainstream print and broadcast news operations. These traditional newsrooms, harvesting evidence that younger news consumers are going to the Internet for news, become centered on mimicking attributes of the Web. Provide more pundits. Offer more ephemeral visuals, charts and graphs. Insert more random citizen comments.

What Gets Lost is Original Reporting
Too often, what gets lost is a focus on delivering original news reporting. And, as news consumers become disgusted and abandon such offerings (I let my Newsweek subscription expire), it seemingly doesn’t occur to these traditional news operations to ask, “If increasingly we’re providing an approximation of what people can readily find online, then why do they need us?”

Here’s one answer to that question: citizens are increasingly providing evidence that they don’t want the traditional press to engage in a superficial focus on aping the often attention-deficit-like attributes of news online. Instead, they want deeper news that engages, in some degree, their daily reality. And they say they are not getting such credible and relevant news. By late 2009, a Pew Research Poll revealed that 61 percent of respondents had concerns about the accuracy of the news. Another Pew survey found that 63 percent of Americans said they would not miss their daily newspaper if it ceased publication. Pew has also found that, nationally, readership of newspapers continues along a downward spiral (local, cable and broadcast network news also are suffering downward viewership trends). In response, too often the mainstream news media leverage technology like blogs, Twitter and interactive graphics to merely tinker with the packaging of news. In doing so, they fail to consider how the lack of deep news – meaningful, accurate and pertinent – results in further public disaffection with many traditional news outlets. Not surprisingly, the death cycle of declining readership and viewership continues.

Captive to Journalistic Routines
There are several reasons why the traditional press does not stop to examine its role in this “death spiral” dynamic. First, as scholar Gaye Tuchman has pointed out, the daily practices of newsrooms are not conducive to contemplation and reflection; instead, journalistic routines focus on delivering a product that meets the needs of the outlet’s particular news cycle. Secondly, as a burgeoning school of political economists continues to point out, pressures from a variety of news owners (including shareholders and parent companies) emphasize gathering and delivering news at the least cost so as to maximize profitability. Finally, there are others, like myself, who also maintain that the historically grounded professional orientation of the press – the prizing of expertise, facts and data – inclines the press to accept as news the viewpoints of privileged interests that can provide such authoritative trappings. These viewpoints, while informed, are often at odds with unreported realities in local communities. While all these schools of thought are divergent in emphasis, collectively, they point to how traditional news operations lack a citizen-engaged approach to gathering and reporting news.

A citizen-engaged press is marked by the central idea that the mainstream news is more than a professional, product- and profit-driven enterprise. It is a field of practice that is dedicated to providing the citizenry the information that it needs to successfully navigate the complexities of a modern democracy. As former Wichita Eagle editor Davis “Buzz” Merritt said, in a representative democracy Americans do not give away ultimate power; instead, the public lends it to elected officials. “The only way for people to retain their ultimate power is by being engaged in its exercise,” he said, and journalism provides the vehicle through which the public can build the capacity to fruitfully interact with its representatives. In fact, Merritt’s observations interplayed well with the theoretical perspective of New York University professor Jay Rosen who spoke often on behalf of a movement-in-design in the 1990s called public journalism. Rosen advocated a citizen-engaged orientation of journalism, one that addresses “people in their capacity as citizens in the hope of strengthening that capacity.” Journalism, he said, “should try to make public life go well, in the sense of making good on democracy’s promise.” Public journalism practices evolved from such a philosophy, encouraging journalists to seek out citizens to help determine a fuller frame for a story. Turning to Rolodexes in the newsroom was no longer enough – journalists were encouraged to get in touch with citizens by interviewing them about civic issues, holding public forums and even turning up questions from the public that they could then use to help hold officials accountable.

Appearances of Engagement
Unfortunately, public journalism also eventually suffered from news operations’ tendencies to focus on form and not on intent. The rise of the Internet had some role in this. News managers began to conflate technology’s ability to provide interactivity with actual citizen engagement. Newsrooms were encouraged to put reporter e-mail addresses on stories, place forums on their news websites and develop portals where citizens could provide videos or still shots. Citizen engagement became less about turning to the public to help determine the fuller breadth of news stories and more about showing that the news operation was minimally providing vehicles (e-mail addresses, Web-based forum pages) that give the appearance that the newsroom is connected with the public.

It is this use of technology to simulate a connection with the public that is particularly troubling right now. Let’s face it, it’s a lot cheaper and easier for newsrooms to turn to blog posts and use photos and videos from citizen contributors to fill news space. However, much of this citizen-generated material does little to inform the citizenry on compelling public issues because news outlets do not contextualize the material, or supplement it with additional reporting. As Jack Rosenberry and I discuss in the recently released book “Public Journalism 2.0: The Promise and Reality of a Citizen-Engaged Press,” journalists have the training, experience and responsibility to cull community-relevant news from citizen-created materials. Just retransmitting what a blogger thinks about the state of K-12 education or putting up a citizen-submitted video that shows a teen being bullied by his peers does little to provide the fuller accounts that people need so that they can make informed decisions.

Essentially, journalism needs to move beyond a fascination with technology that is greatly informed by an unreflective professionalism geared to market needs of media owners. Martha Nussbaum, in her new book “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,” discusses a similar problem as regards the liberal arts in the United States. From K-12 through higher-level education, she says, Americans are being forced to choose between “a form of education that promotes profit and form of education that promotes good citizenship.” She points out that the American educational system is too focused on “producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves.” She identifies a problem in our contemporary educational system that resonates with a key dysfunction of today’s journalism – too much emphasis on the “useful machine” of maximizing news production at the lowest possible cost instead of engaging and enlightening the citizenry.

News of Compelling Public Interest
The first thing that modern journalism can do to reverse such a deleterious trend is to commit to marshaling resources with the intent of finding out what news is of compelling public interest to citizens. Once those resources are in place, reporters receive their mandate: get out of the newsroom and go where people congregate in public places and at publicly accessible, community-initiated meetings. While there, go beyond talking with officials and opinion leaders and ask citizens what drives quality-of-life issues in their communities. Avoid simple, “fair and balanced” equations; there are often more than two sides to an issue, so report on the range of viewpoints. If culling information from blogs, forum posts or citizen-initiated videos, contextualize the material by supplementing it with voices of relevant individuals in the community.

None of these steps is really that hard. In fact, students in ODU’s course Public Journalism in the Digital Age began putting them in place well over two years ago. While students often found it difficult to find citizen sources, they accomplished the task by being creative and resourceful: turning to friends, family, community groups, social networking sites and even going to public places like coffeehouses. One student reflected that he found that a hot news story – he wrote about transportation – became even more complicated to report when he sought multiple voices because, “It’s a good bet that something about the issue is going to change.” Nevertheless, he was able to gather what he could about the problem of road gridlock, including a variety of citizen perspectives about how funding for road projects could best be accomplished.

If students who have none of the resources and networks of professional journalists can make such an effort to connect news reporting with the concerns of the citizenry, how much more readily can newsrooms embrace such an approach? Perhaps today’s mainstream journalism needs first to stake out such changes in routine, and then the professional journalism ideology that is unreflexively concerned about marketplace pressures can be counterbalanced. If journalism chooses not to pursue a more citizen-engaged approach, no amount of slashing reporting in favor of columnists, graphics and rehashings of Internet-based information will save many traditional newsrooms. As I write this in early May 2010, I can assure you that The Washington Post can tell you a little about that; it just put Newsweek up for sale.

Burton St. John, assistant professor of communication at Old Dominion University, is author/editor together with Jack Rosenberry of “Public Journalism 2.0: The Promise and Reality of a Citizen-Engaged Press,” published early in 2010 by Routledge. He joined ODU in 2005 after receiving his Ph.D. from Saint Louis University. Prior to his doctoral studies he spent two decades in public relations and broadcasting. His book, “Press Professionalization and Propaganda: The Rise of Journalistic Double-Mindedness, 1917-1941,” was scheduled for release by Cambria Press in summer 2010. St. John also has written about the press, the public sphere and propaganda for the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Journalism Studies, The Communication Review, Public Relations Review, Journalism History and American Journalism.

Quest Summer 2010 • Volume 13 Issue 1