Ways to shake up the news media

SUN JOURNAL

Innovation: The seven Pew trusts have become a powerful force in journalism, particularly in seeking novel ways to reconnect the citizenry with news media.

August 01, 1999|By Kate Shatzin | Kate Shatzin,SUN STAFF

One of the most powerful influences on journalism today isn't a reporter, an editor or a producer. It's seven trusts bent on getting ordinary people involved in issues by changing the way news is reported -- sometimes, for journalists, in very uncomfortable ways.

Established by the children of Sun Oil Company founder Joseph N. Pew and his wife, Mary Anderson Pew, the Pew Charitable Trusts have helped launch over the past six years the reporting revolution known as "civic journalism," which aims to reconnect journalists with the citizens they serve.

The Pew Center for Civic Journalism has supported 77 projects. But the seven trusts have also bankrolled analytical reports on the state of U.S. newspapers, underwritten fellowships and paid for well-known journalists to report on conflicts, shortcomings and ethical debates in the industry.

"I would say that they've found a way to stimulate thinking among journalists that's significantly out of scale to the dollars [spent] or the specific activities," says Michael R. Fancher, executive editor of the Seattle Times, which launched a two-year, Pew-supported initiative called "Front Porch Forum" to capture citizens' ideas about growth.

"At a time when there are so many forces driving against quality journalism to have somebody who's trying to stimulate smart conversation about the future and the role of journalism has been very valuable."

Other foundations have stepped up their involvement in journalism.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore has established a resource center at the University of Maryland. George Soros' Open Society Institute started fellowships to subsidize long projects. The Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation and eight newspapers financed a three-year project by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to study solutions for the declining credibility of the press.

But Pew has garnered the most credit -- and the most controversy -- for challenging some of the notions of a traditionally stubborn profession. Journalism initiatives have made up only about 2 percent of the Philadelphia trusts' $1 billion in grants between 1993 and 1998, but they have attracted a much greater share of attention.

Getting involved in journalism was the brainchild of Rebecca W. Rimel, Pew's president and chief executive officer, who was searching for ways to get the public more engaged with their communities.

"You come to the conclusion that the press, and the media, is the most powerful and influential force in people's lives," Rimel says.

The Pew Center for Civic Journalism, established in 1993, began to finance research and ancillary staff for journalism projects that went beyond the "one-way pipeline" of reporters and editors to include substantial input from citizens, says Jan Schaffer, its executive director.

Some news organizations have rushed to get funds from the Pew Center -- which offers "subcontracts" to avoid prohibitions on grants from tax-exempt foundations to for-profit companies.

But some journalists have cried heresy at the idea that a supposedly independent press would accept private money for public journalism -- along with at least the perception of influence on the work produced.

"They want to get involved in forcing solutions to problems," says Michael Gartner, the Pulitzer prize-winning editor and owner of the Daily Tribune in Ames, Iowa, and former NBC News president. "I believe reporters should explain, expose, explore and expound. But they shouldn't get involved in trying to resolve issues.

"If it was the General Electric Co. or Pakistan or the Voice of America that had those people in the newsroom, we would be rising as one to yell and scream about it. And yet because it has this nonprofit patina about it, nobody seems to care."

But Schaffer says that her center keeps its money and influence away from news judgments in projects it finances -- and that the ideas evolving from civic-journalism experiments merit the risk.

"It's stuff that holds up to intense scrutiny," she says. "It has made a difference, again and again and again. It has gotten people to take ownership of problems."

The Seattle project, for example, included a mock trial in which a "jury" of 97 citizens was to deliver a verdict on the region's growth policies. In Maine, the Portland Newspapers examined alcoholism's hold on local communities.

At the Press & Sun-Bulletin in Binghamton, N.Y., Executive Editor Martha M. Steffens launched an initiative in 1996 called "Facing Our Future," in which citizens proposed solutions to the area's economic decline. The project organized "action teams" with titles like "Community Beautification and Morale" and "Needs of Seniors."

The Pew Center paid for a community coordinator to help lead the discussions, something Steffens, who is on the center's board of directors, says actually helped the newspaper distance itself from the process.

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