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New Approach to News: Is It Boosterism?

'Civic journalism' calls for readers to help direct coverage. Critics fear death of 'broad, textured reporting.'


NEW YORK — OK, so the media wouldn't win any popularity contests. Arrogant, elitist, distant, overpaid--those are some of the nicer adjectives applied to this noisy profession.

So when a few newspaper executives decided something needed to be done--not only about their image but also their loss of readers--they came up with a movement called "civic journalism."

The idea is to have a kind of partnership with the readers. Don't dictate what's news, the civic journalist says. Ask people what they're interested in. If it's education, write a lot about the schools. Social Security? Rev up the staff and create a series on retirement. Political elections? It should be covered as a job interview, not a horse race.

If all that sounds admirable, however, a lot of high-powered people don't think so. A New York Times editorial called it a "myopic" trend that threatens to drain the humanity out of politics. When a group of news organizations in North Carolina cooperated in a civic journalism exercise that resulted in similar stories, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley wrote: "This isn't exactly a conspiracy, but it's not a bad imitation of one."

Which brings us to former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who said he had not really focused on the debate until he found himself on a panel a few weeks ago in Manhattan. Never at a loss for words, however, Cuomo quickly decided that anybody with a voice--either a politician or a journalist--should not find it necessary to ask pollsters what to say.

"Don't give the people what they want," Cuomo said to the crowd of journalists attending the forum. "If you give them what they want, you are sanctifying popularity. You have to get over that." Reporters should find out about the news and then have enough arrogance to believe that they know more than their readers, he said. And the best ones follow the old code that commands the press should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

This was not exactly music to the ears of many who gathered at the New York forum, sponsored by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and Atlantic Monthly magazine. Nor was it good news for the newspapers like the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer or the Austin (Texas) American Statesman, which have been in the forefront of the civic journalism effort.

It was the latest gibe at their experiment, which also has been associated with the notion that it is less journalism than community boosterism.

"What's good in [civic journalism] isn't new, and what's new in it isn't necessarily good," said Jodie T. Allen, Washington editor of Microsoft Corp.'s online magazine, Slate.

Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, has taken a stand in favor of covering community issues so that "the views, opinions, desires, hopes and dreams of citizens are given full voice and display" instead of simply quoting or describing people in power.

But Kovach added that like Allen and others, he is opposed to those who use civic journalism "as an excuse to join City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce as hometown boosters or to substitute focus groups and polls for the hard work of broad, deep, textured reporting."

Defenders of civic journalism sometimes complain that it suffers from a bad name given to it by--well--by the media.

"It's had journalism done to it," said Ed Fouhy, executive director of the Pew Center in Washington.

Fouhy told a conference sponsored by the Freedom Forum in December that civic journalists believe that "journalism has an obligation to serve the news and information needs of people who live in a self-governing society. In other words, it is an idea that journalism should help people behave as citizens."

In Fouhy's definition (which he admits is not "one size fits all"), market forces are driving news executives away from such serious journalism and toward the sex and violence that once were the main fodder for grocery-store tabloids. Too many television executives and newspaper editors have toned down needed political and foreign coverage, he said.

Still, the market is a force to be reckoned with, and journalists could lose readers and viewers if they don't find out what their audiences want, said James Fallows, editor of U.S. News & World Report.

"We can't just give people what they want," Fallows said in response to Cuomo at the Manhattan conference. "But if they don't want it at all, we're going to go out of business."

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