Last August, Jay Rosen published a blog post arguing for “a citizens agenda in campaign coverage.” The idea, he wrote, “is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision.” And the method of doing that, he suggested, is simply to ask them: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?”
Today, that idea gets one step closer to reality. Rosen and Amanda Michel — currently The Guardian U.S.’s open editor and formerly Rosen’s colleague at HuffPo’s 2008 OffTheBus project — are launching “the Citizens Agenda,” a collaboration between The Guardian and NYU’s Studio 20 program. Though the project will make use of some of the citizen-driven lessons of OffTheBus (and of The Guardian’s multiple experiments in mutualized journalism), the citizens agenda will be above all an experimental space dedicated to determining how to get people’s voices heard in campaigns that, though they purport to be concerned with the people’s interests, all too often ignore them.
The citizens agenda, the pair point out, is not a blanket attempt to end horserace coverage — campaigns are, fundamentally, races, and who’s winning them, you know, matters. Instead, they stress, it’s an attempt to disrupt the horserace as the “master narrative” of political reporting, to inject more perspective (and, for that matter, more data about the demand side of political journalism) into the conversation.
“When people complain about what’s wrong with the coverage, there’s an opportunity to find out…. well, what should the candidates be discussing?”
On the one hand, the citizens agenda is the digital — digitized — heir of civic journalism, the movement that (with Rosen at the helm) came to prominence in the 1990s and attempted to give individual members of communities more agency in the journalism that served them. On the other, though, while the citizen’s agenda is a kind of culmination of that movement — with, today, buy-in from one of the largest news organizations in the world — it’s also something entirely new. It will be, first and foremost, an experiment, Michel told me. They’re starting with an idea; they’re not sure exactly what will come of it. “It’s going to be an iterative process,” she says.
There are two basic goals for the effort, Michel notes: first, the need to understand what people want to learn from and about political candidates — to gain an appreciation, as Michel puts it, of “how the public wants to contextualize the debates and discussion.” Campaigns are notorious for, and in a large sense defined by, their attempts to control narratives; a citizens agenda is in large part an effort to provide a community-driven counter-narrative.
Studio 20’s role in the project, Rosen told me, will be in part to act as an interactive team that will help with the inflow and engagement of users; students in the program will also conduct research and analysis and think through — perhaps even invent — features and tools that can foster that engagement in new ways, testing them out on The Guardian’s U.S. site. (Michel calls the students a kind of “independent brain trust.”)
“We don’t think that the direct way of posing the question, What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012?, is always going to work,” Rosen notes. “Some answers to that question might have to come about indirectly: for example, in dissatisfaction with media coverage as it stands.” So “when people complain about what’s wrong with the coverage and campaign dialogue, there’s an opportunity to find out…. well, what should the candidates be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012?”
“I think there is a kind of authority to be won here,” Rosen points out — a kind of permission for reporters to deviate from the expectations of rankings-based, rather than idea-based, coverage. “Of course, you have to be right, you have to be accurate, you have be listening creatively and well,” he says, and “with some subtlety and an awareness that each method has weaknesses and missing data.” Sampling science will certainly come into play. “This isn’t just reading numbers off a chart,” Rosen notes. “There’s a lot of judgment involved, obviously.”
The second goal of the project is to figure out how to translate those findings into political coverage itself. Which is a challenge that could have fascinating implications — and not just for political reporting. Once you know what people want from political journalism, how do you go about creating that journalism? What’s the right balance between competition-based, and issue-based, coverage? What’s the right balance, for that matter, between journalists determining coverage and the public determining it?
Helping to answer those questions will be Jim Brady and the collection of community papers at Digital First Media, which is partnering with the project to tailor the national findings to the local. “The concepts that they’re applying at a national level certainly don’t become less relevant at a local level,” Brady notes. Figuring out what the public wants out of coverage — and then figuring out how to implement it — can be, in fact, particularly powerful in community news. (That’s part of the reason the project is hoping to bring more local collaborators on board.)
“There has to be a way to turn this into a full-circle feedback loop.”
Though much of the Guardian’s experiments will likely involve online conversation tools like hashtags and surveys and the like, “it’s not an online-only feature,” Brady notes. At the local level, in fact, papers may well experiment with a citizens agenda approach in their print products — and with the kind of in-person debates and forums that were a hallmark of the early days of civic journalism. “We’ll use all platforms,” Brady says — “as in everything we do.”
Still, though, there will be strategy involved, Brady points out. You have to be smart about both how you ask questions and how you make use of the answers. “It doesn’t work if it becomes citizens pouring out their hearts about the issues they want to hear about,” he notes, if “we can’t, as journalists, tie that to actual action by the candidates. Otherwise, it’s just like message boards that nobody responds to. There has to be a way to turn this into a full-circle feedback loop.”
Finding that way will be crucial — and it will require, above all, an openness to both the wisdom of crowds and the political agency of average citizens. Which hasn’t always been journalism’s strong suit. The project will be, Rosen puts it, “a creative act of listening.” And it will be, in that, Michel points out, “a fairly dramatic acceptance of the knowledge and expertise that the public has” — not to mention a fairly dramatic act of humility on the part of the journalistic establishment. “The approach,” Michel says, “is to ask the American public: ‘What is it that you need? What can we do to help?'”
Image by SpeakerBoehner used under a Creative Commons license.