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Civic Journalism, Engaged Journalism: Tracing the Connections

By Geneva Overholser / 2016 August 3rd

“Want to attract more readers? Try listening to them.” That’s the headline on Liz Spayd’s debut as the New York Times’ new public editor. That she devoted her first column to the need to pay attention to readers’ views shows how central the idea of engagement has become for journalists.

She is building on an emerging trend. Mediashift recently published a series of articles called “Redefining Engagement,” inspired by a conference in Portland last October. (They provide a rich trove for anyone seeking to understand the movement.)

Consider also the ONA London 2016 engagement conference in April. A book by Jake Batsell called Engaged Journalism: Connecting with Digitally Empowered News Audiences. An Engaging News Project at the University of Texas, and the Agora Journalism Center at Oregon.

A Reuters Institute report looked at engagement and the 2015 UK elections. The Coral Project creates tools for engagement. An Engagement Summit in Macon, Georgia, in January that I attended produced this manifesto. And more and more newsrooms are naming engagement editors, as Elia Powers describes.

The Democracy Fund sees public engagement as a key element of its work to support vibrant media and the public square. And among the questions it has considered as it thinks about today’s engaged journalism is this: How is it different from civic journalism?

Many will remember—some with a touch of heat—the 1990’s movement known as civic (or public) journalism, which called for a rethinking of newsrooms’ relationships with their communities. Is today’s engaged journalism a new chapter of that movement? As someone who edited a newspaper during those earlier years, and who is now working as a senior fellow and consultant with the Democracy Fund, I’d say the short answer is yes – but: Engaged journalism is a much-evolved descendant, born into a radically changed landscape.

Civic journalism’s proponents felt that journalism was failing our democracy in important ways. Detachment from community was part of the reason. A working relationship with the community to help shape local journalism was key to the solution.

Wikipedia has a richly helpful entry on what it calls this “idea of integrating journalism into the democratic process.” It continues, “The media not only informs the public, but it also works towards engaging citizens and creating public debate.” The movement’s intellectual founding father, Jay Rosen, wrote that “public journalism tries to place the journalist within the political community as a responsible member with a full stake in public life.” The now dormant Pew Center for Civic Journalism said the practice “is both a philosophy and a set of values supported by some evolving techniques to reflect both of those in journalism. At its heart is a belief that journalism has an obligation to public life – an obligation that goes beyond just telling the news or unloading lots of facts. The way we do our journalism affects the way public life goes.”

One of the most important truths about civic journalism is that it came into being at a time when newsrooms were confident (many would say arrogant) in their top-down role as society’s primary sources of news. Moreover, their organizations were enjoying robust economic success. There was little thirst for prescriptions for improvement, however well intentioned.

More specifically, the movement’s opponents resisted it as a threat to journalism’s essential ethic of independence, and as a challenge to its time-honored allegiance to objectivity. (Not to mention the plain old comfort of operating by familiar patterns and enjoying a sense that it was newsrooms, not the critics, who understood what the public needed.) For whatever mix of reasons, by 1997, a survey of Associated Press Managing Editors found that only 7 percent of respondents strongly agreed that civic journalism was “an important way for many news organizations to reconnect with their alienated communities.”

And yet, there is this interesting truth: Within the two decades between then and now, the most basic principle of civic journalism has come into widespread usage. Virtually every newsroom has a richer conversation with its readers, viewers, listeners (or, in Rosen’s memorable phrasing, “the people formerly known as the audience”). In this way, civic journalism prevailed after all.

What changed over those two decades? Almost everything in the journalism world. Advertising became disconnected from news, leaving news organizations bereft of their principal means of support. Technology fractured journalism’s audiences. It also radically redefined roles, opening remarkable opportunities for the public as providers and creators of information. Trust in media continued to plummet. News organizations that once seemed to print money began to pile up debt. Newsrooms that had been averse to change began desperately looking for answers.

What did not change is concern about the health of our democracy. That concern, if anything, has deepened since the ‘90s, when it served as a primary motivation for civic journalism.

And so to 2016’s buzzword, “engagement.” What questions (or answers) does the experience of civic journalism offer its young relative? It would be a mistake to be too definitive about this. Engaged journalism is very much a concept in formation. Still, some fruitful points for examination present themselves:

  • Civic journalism was, by design, loosely defined. (Rosen himself called it everything from an argument to a debate, an adventure to an experiment.) It was a continual work in progress, repeatedly being invented in different ways by different partners. However intentional, the vagueness did at least lend a hand to those who chose to dismiss it.

It’s probably important for engaged journalism, too, to keep its parameters flexible enough to allow for different methods of practice among varied practitioners in diverse communities. Still, some clarity as to its primary goals and baseline practices seems essential in order to spread its message, create a vibrant cohort of practitioners, and gauge its impact.

  • If stubbornness and blitheness were a part of journalists’ resistance to civic journalism, so was the substantial question of how to be responsive while retaining independence. With a clear-eyed understanding of this valid concern, engagement enthusiasts will be better prepared to help newsrooms find ways to ensure that community-mindedness can coexist with, for example, investigative zeal. This fine Mediashift piece is a good place to start.
  • Civic journalism was presented to journalists largely as a recommendation for change in their behavior in relation to the community. Newsrooms today are far from the dominant force they were, and the position of the public has changed dramatically. The former “audience” has in its own hands the tools to shape the flow of information in the public interest. This new public role—along with new technologies and transparency and social-media tools, as well as growing interest from community partners such as libraries – means that engagement now holds the promise of something much broader than a change in newsroom practices.
  • Civic journalism asserted that journalism thrives only if community thrives – an implicit promise regarding the future health of journalism, yes, but not specifically about its business model. Today, engagement is offered by some proponents as precisely a business model. Indeed, in some applications it seems indistinguishable from audience development; a matter simply of building a user base. How well engagement can serve both goals remains to be seen. (While Philadelphia’s news outlet Billy Penn is not yet profitable, its engagement practices seem promising in that regard. In 2015, events accounted for about 80 percent of revenue.)
  • Civic journalism was no doubt weakened by the fact that newsrooms largely failed to reflect the demographics of their communities. This remains woefully true today, and engagement efforts that ignore this will surely be undermined. The proliferation of new startups and the ability of previously under-attended voices to be heard in social media offer promise.
  • Civic journalism bemoaned journalism’s “view from nowhere,” to use another of Rosen’s apt terms. Now, partly because of a growing emphasis on consumers’ appreciation of “voice,” partly because of critiques about false equivalency and about journalists’ failure to share all they know, journalists have gotten better at not being that voice from nowhere. It is clearer now that they are not disinterested observers. On its face, this offers promise for connection. But if journalists have gotten better at claiming their own voice, their talent and taste for listening to public voices seems less thoroughly developed. Taking advantage of the new tools of engagement will be essential.

Civic journalism was a reconsideration of journalism’s practice: Don’t stand off and deliver; ask the community to help shape your work. Engaged journalism, too, reconsiders journalism’s practice but, at its best, considers the new potential for not just journalists, but all citizens to collaborate in bringing about a more informed public. Journalists no longer have a lock on information. Members of the public are now their partners. As a consequence, greater attention is paid to the impact of journalism, to what about it attracts readers or drives them away, to how it affects people’s actions. Businesses, nonprofits and politicians can reach the public directly. Transparency is increasing, and accountability along with it. This could be a promising moment for a melding of legacy journalism’s best strengths, civic journalism’s commitment to community and the new culture of participation.

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