HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Ken Doctor: Why The New York Times hired Kinsey Wilson
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
June 4, 2013, noon

Tracing the links between civic engagement and the revival of local journalism

Serving the public isn’t enough for journalism, the Northeastern University professor says. His new book The Wired City taught him that the public first has to be created, nurtured, and given a voice.

pepes-pizza-new-haven-cc

Editor’s note: Our friend Dan Kennedy has a new book out, and it’s right up Nieman Lab’s alley. The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age takes as its subject local journalism in cities where new online outlets — some for-profit, some not — have set up shop. His primary focus is New Haven, Connecticut, where the New Haven Independent has been one of the new world’s biggest successes.

In this piece, Dan examines the main lessons he took from reporting and writing the book, which you should read. We’ll have an excerpt from the book and a more thorough interview with Dan later this week.

dan-kennedy-the-wired-cityThe star attraction was supposed to be Diane Ravitch, a prominent critic of education reform. But the real stars were the audience members themselves.

I had driven to New Haven on this day in late November 2010 to see if Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, could pull off an audacious experiment in civic engagement. The Independent, a nonprofit online-only news organization, is the principal subject of my new book, The Wired City. The subtitle — Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age — reflects my belief that news can’t survive without public participation. What we got that night was full immersion.

Stage right, Ravitch sat with 11 other people — principals, teachers, school officials, a high school student, a board of education member, and the like. Stage left, a half-dozen media folks and elected officials, including Mayor John DeStefano, were liveblogging the event. The forum was webcast on television and radio, as well as on the websites of the Independent and the New Haven Register, the city’s daily newspaper. Viewers at home — and, for that matter, those in the auditorium who had laptops — were able to engage in a real-time, online conversation with the livebloggers. Afterwards, readers posted a total of 53 comments to the two stories the Independent published (here and here). The archived video was posted as well. Finally, in a touch that seemed almost old-fashioned, the 200 or so people who attended were invited to line up at two microphones during an extended question-and-answer period.

Among the myriad crises facing journalism, perhaps none is more vexing than civic illiteracy. Starting in the 1990s, leading thinkers such as New York University’s Jay Rosen began sketching out ways for news organizations to listen to their audience’s concerns and to shape their coverage accordingly. This “public journalism” movement, as it became known, fizzled as newsroom budget cuts and criticism from traditional journalists took their toll.

But if the audience doesn’t care about the public-interest aspects of journalism, then there really isn’t much hope for a revival. Over the years, newspaper publishers have responded to the decline of civic life by loading up on celebrity gossip and so-called news you can use, such as personal finance and cooking tips. It’s a losing game, because there are always going to be better sources of such information than the local newspaper.

More than a dozen years ago, the Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, in his classic book Bowling Alone, found that people who were engaged in civic life — voting in local elections, taking part in volunteer activities, attending religious services or participating in any number of other activities — were also more likely to read newspapers. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.

Trouble is, Putnam’s machers and schmoozers were aging even then. And so it is up to news organizations not merely to serve the public, but to nurture and educate the public so that it is engaged with civic life, and thus with the fundamental purpose of journalism.

C.W. Anderson, in his book Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age, writes that “journalists [report] the news in order to call a particular form of public into being.” Along similar lines, I argue in The Wired City that creating a public is at least as important as reporting on its behalf. No longer can it be taken for granted that there is a public ready to engage with news about last night’s city council meeting, a speech by the mayor or plans by a developer to tear down a neighborhood landmark and replace it with yet another convenience store.

Howard Owens, the publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit site in western New York that I also write about in my book, once put it this way:

…local community news is currently only a niche product. Entrepreneurs need to think about not only “how am I going to appeal to the people who care now,” but “how am I going to get more people to care about their community so I can grow my audience?”

In researching The Wired City, I learned that the readership for the New Haven Independent comprises a wide swath — elected officials, city employees (especially police officers and teachers), leaders and activists in the African-American community, dedicated localists, and members of what struck me as a surprisingly large and politically aware group of bicycling advocates.

Though the Independent’s audience is not as large as that of the New Haven Register, its concentration inside the city limits and its popularity among opinion leaders — “the grassroots and grasstops circles,” as Michael Morand, an associate vice president at Yale, described it to me in an interview — gives the site outsize influence. Indeed, it was the Independent’s relentless coverage of a controversy over the video-recording of police actions by members of the public that led to a clarification from the police chief that such recording was legal. It also led to mandatory training for all officers.

Thus what we see in New Haven, in Batavia, and in other places where news organizations are trying new methods of bridging the divide between journalism and the public is a revival of the ideas Jay Rosen and others first began championing two decades ago. “What we today call ‘engagement’ was a central feature of many civic-journalism experiments, but in a way we were working with very crude tools then,” Rosen told me in 2011. “It’s almost like we were trying to do civic engagement with heavy machinery instead of the infinitely lighter and cheaper tools we have now.”

The “wired city” that I argue the New Haven Independent brought into being is a community built around local news, empowered by the “lighter and cheaper tools” that have become available during the past decade and a half. Through events like the Diane Ravitch forum, through carefully (if not perfectly) curated user comments, and through the now-taken-for-granted convenience of always being just a few clicks away, the Independent has succeeded not so much as an entity unto itself but as the hub of a civic ecosystem.

As Clay Shirky has observed, with local newspapers slowly fading away, no single alternative will replace what they once provided. We need a variety of experiments — for-profit, nonprofit, cooperative ownership and voluntary efforts. The challenge all of them face is that serving the public is no longer enough. Rather, the public they serve must first be assembled — and given a voice.

Photo of the line at New Haven pizza institution Pepe’s by eschipul used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 4, 2013, noon
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Ken Doctor: Why The New York Times hired Kinsey Wilson
The former chief content officer at NPR will be moving up I-95 to one of the most important digital positions at the Times.
Why Google is taking another shot at helping readers pay for news
Google Contributor is the latest tool the company has designed to help readers pay for what they read online. But its previous experiments in supporting paid content have had limited success.
In Canada, newspapers’ attempts to experiment with ebooks haven’t seen much success
A number of papers across the country started ebook programs in the early part of this decade, repurposing their archives or producing new work. They haven’t been the moneymakers some had hoped.
What to read next
718
tweets
Ken Doctor: The New York Times’ financials show the transition to digital accelerating
The numbers may look flat, but they contain a continuing set of ups and downs. Up next: executing on a year’s worth of launches.
540Here’s some remarkable new data on the power of chat apps like WhatsApp for sharing news stories
At least in certain contexts, WhatsApp is a truly major traffic driver — bigger even than Facebook. Should there be a WhatsApp button on your news site?
502Controlled chaos: As journalism and documentary film converge in digital, what lessons can they share?
Old and new media types from journalism, documentary, and technology backgrounds gathered at MIT to share practices and discuss mutual concerns.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Bayosphere
Seattle PostGlobe
Global Voices
NewsTilt
PBS
Los Angeles Times
Kickstarter
Public Radio International
Press+
The Orange County Register
Reuters