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Topics: Civic Communication

Akron Beacon Journal,

The Beacon-Journal's five-part project "A Question of Race" won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in April 1994. Reporting centered around discussions in focus groups among blacks and whites, convened by the newspaper, conducted by independent research contractors, and observed by reporters. The groups were questioned about the paper's analyses of quantitative data that showed continuing disparities between blacks and whites. During the series, the newspaper invited area organizations to volunteer to establish projects addressing race relations; publisher John Dotson then hired two facilitators to direct planning efforts among the groups. With the last part of the series, the paper invited readers to return a coupon on which they pledged to fight racism in 1994. The names of 22,000 respondents, about half of whom came from area schools, were published in a special supplement. Planning forums among organizational volunteers began in November 1993. By mid 1994, an estimated 10,000 area residents were involved in some kind of effort to work on race relations in the area.

A Question of Color

A case study by Project on Public Life and the Press
New York University
Department of Journalism
10 Washington Pl.
New York, NY 10003
(212) 998-3793

© Project on Public Life and the Press,1994

The Project is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Akron Beacon Journal (newspaper)
44 E. Exchange St.
P.O. Box 640
Akron, OH 44309-0640
(216) 996-3000 (phone)
(216) 376-9235 (fax)

Ownership
Knight-Ridder Inc.
No. newsroom employees: 155

Circulation
160,000 (daily)
226, 000 (Sunday)
Circulation Area(population)
Summit County and surrounding five counties (872,500)

Initiative
A Question of Color (stories, 1993). Coming Together (publisher's initiative, 1993/1994)

Dates
Five publications dates throughout 1993, beginning Feb. 28.

Lead Editor
Bob Paynter
Executive Editor
Dale Allen

When and how did this initiative get started?
Planned on the heels of the Rodney King trial, the series first was published during Black History Month and coincided with the 30th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech.

What are the goals of the initiative?
The reporting project was an effort to move the community beyond previous conversations on race, and to ask why notable gaps still exist in quantifiable measures of perceptions about relations between black and white, such as wages, housing and educational opportunities. The publisher's initiative was designed to involve Akron-area citizens in specific efforts to bridge racial gaps.

What does the initiative entail?
The reporting project focused on five topics: an overview, housing, economic opportunity, education and crime. Three days of stories within each part were centered around discussions among blacks and whites in focus groups convened by the newspaper, conducted by independent research contractors, and observed by reporters. Reports were supplemented by charts detailing differences among black and whites as reflected in databases from the U.S. Census Bureau, FBI, state and local education agencies, county tax authorities and local criminal justice agencies. A five-question poll, conducted by the University of Akron and accurate to within 4 percentage points, offered a barometer of racial attitudes. A unique aspect of the initiative: A story on the last day of the series discussed the dramatically different attitudes about crime coverage reflected in focus groups with black and white Beacon Journal reporters.

How many people are working on it?
Twenty-nine on the reporting project, plus contract research staff. Two full-time facilitators - a retired lay clergyman and a retired school principal, one black, one white - coordinate community efforts. About 50 staffers from across the building lead small-group sessions at forums where organizations convene to establish long-term plans and set goals. About half the volunteers are from the newsroom.

What does it look like in the newspaper?
Series always got big play on 1A and jumped inside the A section. As an indication of commitment to the series, it got almost three times more 1A space than stories from Waco on the day after federal agents launched their first raid on the Branch Davidian compound. Stories generally ran at least 70 inches, with one or two stories per day supplemented by charts and some photos. Sidebars with some installments explained how to file a housing discrimination complaint. Beginning with the second installment of the series, in May, the paper began running a "What Can We Do?" coupon inviting area civic groups, religious organizations and schools to suggest projects they would undertake to improve area race relations. The December installments featured the 1A coupon inviting people to make a New Year's resolution to fight discrimination. Names of the 22,000 people who returned the coupon were printed in a special section in January. Forums where community groups meet to brainstorm potential solutions are covered by the news staff.

Response to the Initiative

In the newsroom:
Focus groups showed vast disagreement between black and white reporters asked to discuss their attitudes about the paper's own crime coverage. The discussions were held after citizens in focus groups repeatedly mentioned the role crime coverage played in shaping racial perceptions. "It shows a couple of things," Managing Editor Glen Guzzo said of the staff's own divergence. "How little agreement there is even in our own newsroom; we're like the rest of the community in our various points of view. It's also quite instructive to those out there who think the media is a conspiracy - we don't even have agreement in our own newsroom."

More experienced staffers noted that the series seemed to be a return to traditional journalistic practice - working with and in the community. One long-time reporter assigned to cover an organizations forum told Guzzo, "It was wonderful that the Beacon Journal was being involved in the community, as in the days of Jack Knight and his successors." Guzzo thinks public journalism reflects a healthy middle ground. "When we started to go the other way, not wanting to have such a relationship where the Beacon Journal ran the town, the pendulum swung too far. It didn ' t work to the benefit of the community or the newspaper."

In the community:
The first call for organizations to launch projects drew 80 responses. By February 1994, more than 300 groups were involved. Under direction from two facilitators hired by the Beacon Journal, plans were underway to develop a common umbrella - a slogan, community t-shirts, etc. - and a unified direction. Organizations are involved at a range of levels, including groups of black and white friends who team up to socialize together for the first time.

What's next:
Once community organizations agree on a common approach and direction, they will begin developing specific action plans. A meeting in February was a "report back" from leaders of small-group sessions at the organizations forums. At the next meeting, in May, the paper's facilitators will reconvene the full forum .

Case study written by Lisa Austin, Assistant Director of the Project on Public Life and the Press, March 1994. Lisa is also a member of the CPN Journalism editorial team.

Update

Together, the paper's facilitators estimate between 10,000 and 15,000 people are involved in some way with the efforts launched by the community groups, who are moving forward around the theme of developing interpersonal relationships to improve race relations in Akron. The May event drew nearly 150 groups who set up booths to show what they are doing and to invite citizens to participate; about 500 people attended.

The most visible success to date involves a partnership between a black and a white church with combined membership of about 1,500 people. Together, they have sponsored a community hunger walk, developed monthly Bible studies that involve members of both churches and are currently planning a community-wide family concert. Though the Akron Area Association of Churches had promoted such pairing of congregations in the past, these two came together only through the work of the newspaper. Several other churches also have developed partnerships, and for the first time representatives of the Black Muslim and Bahai religions have joined the association of churches.

Another major effort involves the staff of a community museum showcasing the former home of the founder of Goodyear Tire Co. Located in an all-white neighborhood, the museum's 25-member staff includes only two minorities, both in the maintenance department, and the museum has been denied grants in the past for its failure to develop a diverse audience. After becoming involved with the paper's community effort, the museum staff formed a diversity task force to develop strategies that make minorities feel welcome in the museum; among its first efforts was a grant application to develop diversity training for staff and to build minority audiences.

Though community groups have been somewhat resistant to developing their own agenda, asking the facilitators for more help, facilitators Richard Averitte and Bill Fisher say they believe the open process of coming to a jointly developed, community-based effort is crucial to the effort's success.
-LA, 7/94

More Information

Project on Public Life and the Press
New York University
Department of Journalism
10 Washington Pl.
New York, NY 10003
(212) 998-3793

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