I had driven to New Haven, Connecticut, 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 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 eleven other people—principals, teachers, school officials, a high school student, a board of education member, and others. Stage left, a half-dozen media folks and elected officials, including then-mayor John DeStefano, were live-blogging the event. The forum was broadcast 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 live-bloggers. Afterwards, readers posted a total of 53 comments to the two stories the Independent published. 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. More than a dozen years ago the Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, in his classic book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, 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, those machers and schmoozers were on the wane even then: Putnam’s dispiriting thesis was that civic engagement had given way to other, more private activities, mainly watching television. In order for local journalism to survive into the future, news organizations need to find ways to encourage community engagement with the issues they cover. In a very real sense, that is what the Diane Ravitch event was all about.
In The Wired City I argue 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 news site in western New York that I also write about in my book, puts 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 other words, in order for community news to thrive, you first need a news community—that is, a community that forms around local news and information.
About forty miles north of Boston, in the working-class city of Haverhill, Massachusetts, a small group of volunteers is trying to turn an innovative idea for a news community into a reality. Sometime in late 2014 or early 2015, they hope, a news site called Haverhill Matters will slip into view. It will be one of the first cooperatively owned local news organizations. As with a food co-op, Haverhill Matters will be owned and governed by its members. People will be able to join by paying a membership fee or by contributing labor—perhaps by writing a neighborhood blog or covering governmental meetings. The project was in the early planning stages when I was researching The Wired City. Considerable progress has been made since then.
The site will be the first test of the Banyan Project, developed by Tom Stites, a retired journalist and former editor of UU World. If it is successful, Stites hopes to roll out similar news co-ops around the country.
The goal is to serve “news deserts,” a term Stites adapted from “food deserts.” Although Haverhill is covered by a daily and a weekly newspaper, both are owned by an out-of-state corporate chain that has cut its staff significantly in recent years. The papers no longer have offices in Haverhill. Stites believes that just as a lack of fresh, nutritious food can be harmful to personal health, so, too, can a lack of fresh, relevant news be harmful to civic health.
Although both Haverhill Matters and the Banyan Project are purely secular endeavors, Stites sees some parallels between his idea and Unitarian Universalism’s Fifth Principle: “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” “If you think of news communities and religious communities—meaning congregations—as comparable, the authority of the congregation comes from its members,” says Stites. “It’s a democratic institution, things are decided by discussion and vote. With the co-op model it’s the closest in all possible ways to the congregational polity model. There really is a real congruence there.”
Another parallel between a Unitarian Universalist congregation and a news co-op is that each depends on professionals and volunteers working side by side. Haverhill Matters will be run by a paid editor and a paid community manager—chosen by a board of volunteers, who will, in turn, be elected by the membership. The two paid staff members will also recruit and interact with the site’s volunteer contributors.
As of this writing, members of a planning committee are trying to raise $50,000 in donations from so-called founding members, after which Haverhill Matters will launch. The project will also seek ongoing support in the form of $36 annual fees from at least 1,200 members.
“We enter 2014 with some momentum,” Stites said at a planning meeting earlier this year. “We’ve got to keep it. We’ve got to build it. We’ve been picking away at this thing for a couple of years. If we don’t do it this year, chances are it won’t get done.”
If there’s a single person who has been associated with the idea of civic engagement and news communities, it is Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. Starting in the 1990s, Rosen and others began sketching out ways for news organizations to listen to their audience’s concerns—through surveys, focus groups, and community meetings—and to shape their coverage accordingly. This “public journalism” (or “civic journalism”) movement, as it became known, fizzled as newsroom budget cuts and criticism from traditional journalists took their toll. Now some of those ideas are back—enhanced and enabled by digital technology.
“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. “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.”
Paul Bass sees civic engagement as crucial to the mission of the New Haven Independent. For him, events such as the education reform forum, political debates, and the like are simply a more elaborate version of the ongoing conversation over which he presides every day—the comments posted on the Independent’s website. Unlike the comments at a typical newspaper website, the Independent’s are screened beforehand and carefully moderated so that they comprise an ongoing dialogue about some of the most important local issues.
Thus what we see in New Haven, in Batavia, in Haverhill, 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 Rosen and others first began championing two decades ago.
Bass puts it this way: “I’ve learned that the public can steer the conversation and take the story to a better place than reporters or editors could ever take it alone.”
This article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of UU World (page 50-52). A version of this essay also appeared on niemanlab.org (June 4, 2013). Illustration (above) © Robert Neubecker.