For Marc Tom Yew, a fourth-year industrial engineering student at Ryerson, it was a typical day during December finals. As usual, he stopped into a convenience store along his route to school and picked up a newspaper. When he slapped the money and paper on the counter, the clerk greeted him with a sudden laugh and nodded to the cover: Tom Yew’s facr stared back at him from the front page of The Toronto Star. In early October, Tom Yew had been interviewed by Star staffer Tanya Talaga as part of “1,000 Voices-Lives on Hold,” a weeklong series focusing on youth unemployment in Canada. It offered an intimate look into the lives of young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 and presented first-hand accounts of their fears and hardships, and the realities they face in the struggle to secure employment. The reporters spoke to a variety of young adults, university and college presidents, researchers and government officials. On this chilly December day, not only did the Star‘s nearly two million readers see Marc Tom Yew’s face, but they were also privy to the thoughts and concerns his generation has about the future of employment in Canada.
The series included the standard interviews and surveys, and identified some factors contributing to the unemployment crisis facing 600,000 young Canadians: lack of education and skills, rising education costs and unprecedented student debt. A number of students, employers and education experts voiced their concerns about the quality of education in the nation’s post-secondary institutions. But unlike traditional news stories, “Lives on Hold” didn’t stop there. It also included suggestions on how to overcome the problems and encouraged readers to air their views in a discussion at the Star‘s Website. Almost two months after the series was published, the Star continued to track the issue by running follow-up stories. Dave Ellis, the Star‘s investigative projects editor, is optimistic that long-term changes will result from the series: “There was a First Ministers’ Conference the week after it was published and this [series] had an impact on the discussion at that. It’s going to have an impact on the federal budget in a couple of weeks.” In the meantime, Ellis says theStar is still fielding calls from companies who “are phoning and offering jobs to the kids.”
This type of journalism has been called everything from “conversational” to “civic,” “advocacy” to “crusading.” But it’s most commonly known as public journalism, a term that first surfaced in the U.S. five years ago. Public journalism not only aims to inform readers, but encourages them to become more proactive citizens. It requires that journalists seek greater input from their community, be more attentive to the context of the problems and what they perceive as possible solutions. Readers are no longer seen as news consumers who need to have their interests and desires dictated to them; instead, they are viewed as intimately involved in the functioning of society.
To some of its opponents, public journalism lacks objectivity, relies too heavily on opinion polls and simply takes too long to produce. Others, like John Douglas, managing editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, see the approach as nothing more than “a cliché that’s caught on in the United States.” Or as Bill Turpin of The Daily News in Halifax puts it “an expensive trend.” Perhaps, but it’s not a trend that’s widespread-at least not yet. In Canada, although the majority, if not all, of newspapers tackle social policy and community issues, few papers have embraced public journalism. And Turpin may have identified why: the price of going public is simply too steep for many dailies.
Jay Rosen has been described as everything from the “father of public journalism” to its “guru.” A journalism professor at New York University, he is the director of the NYU-based Project on Public Life and the Press, whose purpose is to assist journalists experimenting with public journalism. He traces the origins of this new form to the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign, which he describes as “the worst campaign in modern memory.” News coverage was dominated by jingoistic debate over the use of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools and vicious attack ads (remember Willie Horton?). Citizens, he says, were disgusted, and so were journalists. In a paper called “Civic Journalism: A New Approach to Citizenship,” Rosen and his two coauthors describe how “in city rooms and newsrooms, journalism think-tanks and foundations, working journalists and scholars began looking for a better way to cover politics.”
The first attempt to find a better way began at The Wichita Eagle in Kansas. In the lead-up to the 1990 elections, the paper first polled Kansans to establish what issues were on voters’ minds. Having identified 10 topics of wide concern, from education to the environment, the Eagle prepared a six-part “issue watch” about candidates titled “Where They Stand.” In conjunction with a local TV station, the paper also promoted voter registration and turnout. The project, Eagle editor Buzz Merritt later said, “caused people to move outside of themselves a little more, to view things as problems the community can approach rather than something politicians and institutions are going to fix.” Ultimately, he said, this experiment made him and his colleagues in Wichita realize “that maybe there’s a better way of newspapering, a different tone and attitude that can be applied to everyday journalism.”
Two years later, the Eagle presented “Solving It Ourselves: The People Project” in an attempt to engage residents in the search for solutions to problems like crime and gang violence, family stress and the flawed school system. The series ran for nine weeks and included a comprehensive listing of area organizations and agencies that were working toward change; the paper also promoted “idea exchanges” where residents could meet other concerned citizens and community groups to share possible approaches. The longest running public journalism project was developed by the Wisconsin State Journal. The paper spent three and a half years examining the way politics and public policy affect the lives of everyday people. By the time the series ended in the spring of 1995, more than 2,000 people had participated in town hall meetings, debates and civic exercises, like the one in which voters created state budgets. Meanwhile, in Florida, six newspapers with a combined circulation of 1.4 million (among them The Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times) and 12 National Public Radio affiliates united to produce “Voices of Florida,” which identified statewide citizen concerns and feelings of dissatisfaction with the political system.
Most of these early public journalism experiments revolved around elections; but as the approach became more common, pieces sometimes focused on other social issues. For instance, in 1993, the Akron Beacon Journal of Ohio ran five series, including the three-part “Question of Color.” “It was after the L.A. riots in ’92,” explains projects editor Bob Paynter. “We, like a lot of other people, were asking what we could do to explain whether the question was as volatile as it appeared to be in L.A.” The paper organized focus groups of blacks and whites to discuss issues like crime and economic development, and invited local residents and organizations to develop projects addressing race relations by providing facilitators to help with project planning. At the end of the year, the paper printed coupons containing a New Year’s pledge to improve race relations and invited readers to send it in; by the summer of 1994, more than 22,000 area residents had responded. As a result, the “Coming Together” project was created to coordinate volunteer efforts with input from neighbourhood groups, companies, churches and area organizations. It still exists today as a nonprofit corporation. The series won the Beacon Journal the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1994. Interestingly, Paynter explains that “Question of Color” was never intended as a public journalism project: “It just sort of evolved and became used as an example of it after the fact.” Paynter admits he has “mixed feelings” about public journalism: “I think that sometimes it really works. It did in this case and can in others, but I don’t think it’s something that can be applied all the time.”
Jay Rosen expresses the goals of this type of reporting in lofty terms: “A public that is engaged as well as informed, a polity that can deliberate as well as debate, communities that not only know about but can also act upon their problems, readers who are citizens as well as consumers of the news.” As noble as these aims seem, public journalism has lots of detractors, many of whom subscribe to conventional journalism’s dictates of “objectivity” and “balance,” which cast the reporter as an observer, fact finder and truth teller. Naysayers, like late journalist and media critic Edwin Diamond, have portrayed public journalism as nothing more than using opinion polls to pinpoint the stories that readers want covered, then spoon-feeding them the desired information. As Diamond argued in an April 1997 open debate with Rosen, “Sometimes we have to tell people what they don’t want to hear.” Skeptics exist north of the 49th parallel, among them The Toronto Star‘s Rosie DiManno. Last fall, in a column titled “My 10 Rules for Running a Newspaper,” she declared that no newspaper assignment should take longer than two weeks to complete. “News is what happens today and appears in the paper tomorrow,” she wrote. “Dissertations are for scholars.”
One of Canada’s earliest high-profile public journalism projects had its genesis not in the American political scene but in another type of U.S. media circus. In the months following the O.J. Simpson trial, The Toronto Star featured a highly touted eight-part series on spousal abuse, “Hitting Home.” Reporter Rita Daly, who had the original idea, says she “was curious to know how we handled spousal abuse in the criminal courts…and quickly discovered that there was actually no way of tracking how these cases were dealt with here.” In mid-June 1995, Daly attended a meeting with Dave Ellis, then city editor, and assistant city editors Greg Smith and Chris Zelkovich, where the story was given a tentative start date of June 25. Ellis recalls, “The chief Crown attorney in Toronto said, “Well, if you start on Canada Day, you should have a wrap by October.'” In fact, the series didn’t appear until the following March. “I don’t think we envisioned the magnitude of what we were beginning,” says Daly. “[But] I think that there was a recognition by the people involved early in the process that this was a project that would likely result in some pretty startling outcomes.”
Daly, along with reporters Jane Armstrong and Caroline Mallan, followed the lives and stories of 133 abused men and women in Metro Toronto. They collected more than 12,000 pieces of information, which were put into a database by assistant city editor Kevin Donovan. They then used the database to further examine such aspects of spousal abuse as how many abusers are allowed to plead to lesser charges without suffering jail time or a criminal record. The demand for the series was so high that the Star issued its first-ever reprint, and, almost two years after the series ran, Daly continues to field a couple of calls a week relating to the project. But aside from being a good read, the series prompted action. Daly rhymes off the results: “North York has set up a special domestic violence court. Toronto City Hall has set up a special domestic violence court. And in both these cases they have Crown attorneys specially assigned to those courts to deal specifically with these cases.” In her opinion, the overwhelming response the series received is not only an indication of public interest in the issue of domestic abuse, but in the style of journalism that brought it into their homes. “You know,” she says, “just the impact alone illustrates the need for it and the desire for that kind of journalism.”
Since then, the Star has run more series to promote awareness of and solutions for social problems. In addition to last December’s “1,000 Voices,” “Cry for the Children” looked at child abuse in April 1997, and, this January, “Madness” addressed the issue of mental illness. In each case the stories have prompted action. Some at the Star, including Dave Ellis, believe the inquests that followed “Cry for the Children” were a direct result of the series. Shortly after the seven-part “Madness” series ran, Ontario’s ministry of health announced a probe into mental health-care reform.
The Star doesn’t have an exclusive on public journalism in Canada. In 1995, The Kingston Whig-Standarddecided to take a close look at a hot local topic: the amalgamation of Kingston and three neighbouring townships. The Whig commissioned an Angus Reid poll to explore residents’ opinions on the subject, because, according to managing editor Lynn Haddrall, “We felt it was certainly a good investment in the community and it was an issue we really wanted to be a leader on.”
A week after the poll results were published, the paper ran a special eight-page amalgamation report in its Saturday Companion section. It outlined the municipality’s options, provided historical background and examined attitudes about local government. The final element was a town hall meeting that drew a crowd of about 300-not bad, says Haddrall, “because for most public meetings you’d be lucky if you get a quorum.” The meeting heard from local and provincial experts on municipal politics, as well as a mayor whose municipality had already weathered amalgamation. In the end, the amalgamation plans were approved by voters, and while Haddrall thinks it is a stretch to suggest that the paper played a significant role in the merger, she says the Whig‘s stories dealt with the issue “in a really in-depth way before a lot of people had wrapped their minds around it.”
In other parts of the country, newspapers are also addressing issues from a local perspective. Although unfamiliar with the term “public journalism,” Cam Hutchinson, managing editor of Saskatoon’s StarPhoenix,acknowledges his paper has used this approach: “I guess I’d never heard the term public journalism, but we are doing major pieces.” In 1996, The StarPhoenix explored street life and focused on child prostitution in the inner city. For almost a week, Hutchinson says, the paper’s front page addressed elements of the sex trade, like who’s involved, why they’re involved and possible solutions. The reaction wasn’t entirely positive. “A lot of people didn’t want to know prostitution went on right under their noses. Child prostitution-that’s something that happens in Toronto or New York or places like that, not in good old Saskatoon.”
While the issues addressed may vary from paper to paper, one thing remains consistentóthis is expensive journalism. Haddrall estimates that Whig staff worked on the amalgamation series for several weeks; then there was the cost of the Angus Reid poll and town hall meeting. Last spring’s sexual abuse series, which probed abuse in schools, was also pricey: “You’re talking about taking a reporter and keeping him out of the regular mix for several weeks, and at a small paper that is a huge investment.” The Star‘s Dave Ellis hesitates to do the math. “You really don’t want to think about the cost because it’s a lot. Just think of the reporters and already you’re up to $200,000,” he says. “If you have a small newspaper you cannot detach people for that amount of time.” As Haddrall says, “It is difficult journalism to do because of the substantial investment of resources and that investment is in dollars and people.”
That’s why public journalism is out of the grasp of papers like the Daily News in Halifax. The managing editor, Bill Turpin, believes the approach is successful in selling newspapers, but the fact remains, he says, “We’re a small paper and don’t have the resources to make that kind of investment.” John Douglas, city editor at theWinnipeg Free Press, doesn’t entirely agree. ” You don’t have to be a Toronto Star,” he says. “You look at some of the newspapers in this country that have done it best: the Kitchener-Waterloo Record,The Kingston Whig-Standardóthey aren’t big papers, but they still practise public journalism.” However, he does acknowledge that papers like his “just don’t have the staffing to cover every community issue in this way.” Cam Hutchinson at The StarPhoenix also says cost is not an impediment at his paper. “Basically, any reporter who comes up with a good idea that involves spending some money or some time, either one, we’re willing to look at it.”
On one level, the reason for the success of this type of journalism is simple: people can relate to it. At the same time, it gives readers an avenue to pursue change and make a difference. But public journalism also offers readers insight into issues that are grossly underreported or simply misrepresented in the media.
Daly says that stories like the domestic abuse one are particularly effective because “you’re dealing with serious social issues that have not been given the kind of focus they should have.” Donovan Vincent, who worked on the “Madness” series, points out that in the past the paper failed to offer the full picture and treated mental illness “in a very patchwork way. If there was a shooting, we talked about the policing area, or if there was a homeless guy, we talked about the homeless issue without giving it a context.”
But can newspapers, as commercial organizations, present a fair and accurate picture when public issues are involved? Vincent maintains they can. That a newspaper is a business “doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t take on social issues, that you cannot look at a problem and say, “Hey, let’s try to fix this thing and be an advocate for change,'” he says. Bryan Cantley, manager of editorial services at the Canadian Newspaper Association, adds, “I’d have to say if it gathers momentum and gets the population interested in those issues that affect their lives, I think it’s valuable. It shows that a newspaper is more than just a business entity, that it’s got a soul and cares for the community.” Some, however, acknowledge the possibility of unintentional exploitation. Hutchinson says you feel proud when you do a good job covering an issue, “but you also don’t want to feel so good that you look as if you’ve exploited someone.”
Still, the fact remains that the multipart series that tend to characterize public journalism generally increase newspaper sales. The Winnipeg Free Press’ Douglas says the paper has seen an increase in circulation since it’s begun providing more than “core” news coverage. Currently, for instance, it is working on an examination of the health-care situation that will include a town hall meeting, due to be televised on the local CBC station in mid-April. It will also involve three days of coverage featuring people’s questions and concerns, plus suggestions offered by different experts. “When we do a special project, we let people know it’s coming and we generally do sell more papers,” says Lynn Haddrall. However, the projects tend not to be driven by an interest in increasing sales. When the Whig investigated 20-year-old allegations of sexual abuse by a local high school teacher last spring, for example, Haddrall says the newspaper published its findings, then ran a special series called “Trust Betrayed,” which revealed that the structural cracks that allowed the abuse to occur in the past still exist. Ultimately, she says, “the sexual abuse series may have sold more single copies, but in the end we lost a few subscriptions.” The Star‘s domestic abuse series had no such downside. The paper netted a number of prestigious awards, among them the 1996 Special Project Award from the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Michener award for meritorious public service. It was also nominated for the Associated Press Public Service Award.
Not that following the public journalism route is a guarantee that you’re going to win an award. As Theresa Boyle, Vincent’s colleague on the mental illness series, notes: “The Star has invested a lot of time and energy in other projects that have flopped. Sure, it’s nice to get recognition for your work, but I don’t think that’s what motivates people to do it.”
Jay Rosen understands the motivation. Over the last four years, he has given talks to about 3,000 journalists and the one question he always asks is, “Why did you go into journalism?” The most common response, he says, “is “I wanted to make a difference’ or “I wanted to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ It’s interesting, almost nobody ever says, “You know, I went into journalism because I have a passion for objectivity’ or “I wanted to be a journalist because I’m a detached person and detachment is my thing, so I figured this would be a great job for me.'” For Boyle, there’s an altruistic reason for pursuing public journalism: “It’s journalism that makes a difference. It’s substantive and it makes a difference in people’s lives.”
That’s exactly what Marc Tom Yew is hoping his appearance in “1,000 Voices” will do. The front-page photo was a way for him “to advertise my position, especially from a student perspective,” he says. “Hopefully, some lucky employer is going to remember me.”