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Topics: Communication

The Wichita Eagle

As a pioneer in the civic journalism movement, the Wichita Eagle has undertaken two significant projects. "Where They Stand" focused coverage of the 1990 Kansas gubernatorial election on issues of concern to the voters. They included ten key concerns: education, economic development, environment, agriculture, social services, abortion, crime, health care, taxes and state spending. The "People Project" engaged area residents in a search for solutions to the problems of faltering schools, crime and gangs, political gridlock, and stress on families. Working with a local television and radio station, the Eagle brought together citizens to share ideas and find the resources with which to act. Case study plus.


Disconnect: The Origins of Public Journalism
Wichita Eagle, "The People Project".


Disconnect: The Origins of Public Journalism

Disconnect: The Origins of Public Journalism

by Jay Rosen. Copyright 1996 by the Twentieth Century Fund, all rights reserved. Copies of this excerpt may be reproduced for individual use only. All other uses require written permission from the Twentieth Century Fund, 41 East 70th Street, New York, NY 10021.

The Charlotte Observer

A description of three early projects—two at the Wichita Eagle, one at the Charlotte Observer—will show how the origins of public journalism lay in a creative response to the dangers of the "disconnect." Both papers are owned by Knight-Ridder, Inc., whose chief executive at the time, James K. Batten, had spoken eloquently on the need for newspapers to address the "sluggish state of civic health in many communities."74 Batten saw "community connectedness" as a possible meeting ground between public service traditions in the press and the business imperatives of a struggling industry. . . .

In the fall of 1992, this "new purposefulness" was taken further by the Charlotte Observer with its bold experiment in election coverage.86 Like others in journalism, then executive editor Rich Oppel was dissatisfied with press performance in past campaigns, particularly with horse-race polling, which had miscalled a bitter 1990 Senate race between Jessie Helms and Harvey Gantt. That embarrassing episode had a "last straw" quality for the Observer. The weaknesses of horse race coverage were well-known; now its biggest strength, the ability to predict the winner, was also suspect.

In 1992, Oppel and publisher Rolfe Neill were determined to try something different. Meanwhile, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which has an educational mission within journalism, was looking to demonstrate that a revised approach was possible. Aware of the progress that had been made in the Wichita's 1990 election coverage, the two institutions agreed to cooperate, adding as a partner WSOC-TV, with whom the paper had conducted joint polling in the past. The Observer set out to amplify and extend the "new political contract" outlined two years earlier by Merritt. In a front-page column entitled, "We'll help you regain control of the issues," Oppel announced the paper's intentions:

David Broder of the Washington Post has said voters see no "connection between their concerns in their daily lives and what they hear talked about and see reported by the press in most political campaigns."

We think this is dangerous...

We will seek to reduce the coverage of campaign strategy and candidates' manipulations, and increase the focus on voters' concerns. We will seek to distinguish between issues that merely influence an election's outcome, and those of governance that will be relevant after the election. We will link our coverage to the voters' agenda, and initiate more questions on behalf of the voters.87

Oppel's column represents a kind of coming clean that was long overdue in campaign journalism. Consider the many declarations made or implied in the above passage: First, he admits that politics-as-strategy is a narrative device that ought to be drastically reduced; then he declares that his newspaper will be consciously applying a new "focus on voters' concerns." He acknowledges that the temporal frame—the definition of political time—that ordinarily shapes campaign coverage is too narrow, focusing as it does on "issues that merely influence an election's outcome." He then announces the choice of a new frame: matters of "governance that will be relevant after the election." He admits that question-asking is an important public function that can be performed several different ways. The way the Observer chooses is to "initiate more questions on behalf of the voters."

In the same passage, Oppel concedes that "covering politics" and "having an agenda" are not mutually exclusive; then he vows, "We will link our coverage to the voters agenda." Finally, he declares that a newspaper inevitably has convictions about politics ("We think this is dangerous") and that news coverage follows from those convictions ("We'll help you regain control of the issues.") This is a far cry from traditional thinking in journalism, which pretends that convictions are properly "contained" within the editorial page, while the news pages remain uncontaminated by anything so messy and emotional. In short, Oppel's column recognizes that the design of political coverage is itself an issue, and he discusses that issue with the public.

The search for a "citizen's agenda" began in January of 1992 with a poll of 1,000 adults (not necessarily readers) conducted by a Knight-Ridder subsidiary and jointly-sponsored by WSOC-TV. The poll asked residents not who they would vote for, or what they wanted to read, but what they were concerned about and wanted the candidates to discuss in the upcoming election. Six broad areas of concern emerged: the economy and taxes, crime and drugs, health care, education, the environment, and a general sense that support structures and value systems in family and community life were weakening. These became the "citizen's agenda." Five hundred of the poll's respondents agreed to serve on a "citizen's panel" to help the Observer keep its focus on the public's concerns, rather than the machinations of the candidates or the weekly flux of campaign events.

Issues from the citizen's agenda dominated the coverage, with the emphasis on answering questions, explaining the candidates' positions and exploring possible solutions. Queries from citizens were regularly put to the candidates and campaign staffs; polls and strategy stories were downplayed. Stories were told through the eyes and lives of citizens, relying heavily on readers' phoned-in comments and questions from the citizen's panel. With the citizen's agenda, rather than campaign tactics, driving the coverage, reporters specializing in business, education, health and religion were recruited to write political stories. Coverage focused on possible solutions as well as problems. Profiles of the candidates were accompanied by grids comparing the candidates' statements and records against the voter's agenda. Campaign speeches were "mapped" against the agenda so that reports focused not only on what was said, or the strategy behind saying it, but what it meant for the issues on people's minds.

Voters emerged as participants in the campaign. Reporters on the campaign trail would ask questions from specific readers; replies would be published under a regular heading, "Ask the Candidates." Before the state primary, Pat Buchanan was interviewed by eight members of the citizen's panel. Three panel members questioned gubernatorial candidates at a debate on school reform. For three Sunday evenings in October, WSOC-TV featured a televised conversation among citizens, keyed to issues explored in the Sunday newspaper.

These events reveal another dimension of press power that ordinarily goes unnoticed: journalists determine who counts as a "player" in politics. As communication scholar Michael Schudson puts it, among the tools the press employs is the "capacity to publicly include."88 By revising its use of this capacity, the Observer told a different story about the 1992 election: the story of citizens, candidates and public concerns "connecting" with each other— or failing to connect.

The reorientation required an extraordinary effort. Virtually the entire staff from business reporters to feature writers contributed something to the revamped coverage. Space was also increased. Coverage of the presidential race almost doubled over the previous campaign— some 18,000 square inches compared to 10,500 in '88. According to Poynter, issue coverage went from 1,890 sq in. in '88 (18 percent of total) to 5,716 sq in. in '92 (32 percent). Coverage of campaign strategy fell from 21 percent of total in '88 to 11 percent in '92; horse-race polls declined from 6.1 percent to 1.4 percent. News of what the candidates did and said was consistent in percentage terms with 1988.89

Before the initiative began, Oppel said, "If we do campaign coverage this way, it will change the way we do everything here."90 This hints at the depth of the shift in thinking the Wichita and Charlotte papers began. By making the citizen's experience the primary reference point, the two papers began to alter the way journalists experienced the political drama, as well. The newspaper's orientation to politics—the sense of what was worth knowing and why—underwent its own shift. The best illustration of this change is a story told by Oppel from the 1992 campaign:

Voters were intensely interested in the environment.... So our reporters went out to senatorial candidates and said, "here are the voters' questions." Terry Sanford, the incumbent senator, called me up from Washington and said, "Rich, I have these questions from your reporter and I'm not going to answer them because we are not going to talk about the environment until the general election." This was the primary. I said, "Well, the voters want to know about the environment now, Terry." He said, "Well, that's not the way I have my campaign structured." I said, "Fine, I will run the questions and I will leave a space under it for you to answer. If you choose not to, we will just say 'would not respond' or we will leave it blank." We ended the conversation. In about ten days he sent the answers down...91

What this story illustrates is the intricate relations between power and authority in political journalism. Clearly, Oppel was deploying the power of his newspaper with his threat to leave a blank space under Sanford's name. But he had other weapons on his side: the renewed authority that came from the effective representation of citizens' interests, and from the legitimate attempt to make the campaign dialogue a discussion of important issues. The pre-election poll, the newspaper's interviews with citizens, and the fact that readers were constantly urged to phone, write and fax with questions and comments gave teeth to the claim to be representing citizens. This claim, which is always to some degree rhetorical, became more and more empirical as the Observer found ways to first define, then pursue a "citizen's agenda." All of this helped to make the Observer's power play an instance of fair play.

Another intriguing dimension of Oppel's story involves what did not happen. When Terry Sanford explained that his campaign strategy did not include talking about the environment yet, Oppel did not say, "Oh really? Tell me your thinking on that." This is the dark hole that strategy stories tumble down. The journalist's curiosity is aroused by the insinuation of a clever move, the effectiveness of which can only be appreciated by a savvy observer, which is the kind journalists want to be. "That's not the way I have my campaign structured" is a subtle invitation to Oppel to enter the universe of handlers and pollsters. By declining this invitation, Oppel stayed within the universe of the citizen. He also let Sanford know how the Observer would be "structuring" the campaign: as a dialogue on public issues. Like any good journalist, he hung tough with Sanford as the Senator tried to squirm away. But here, toughness was placed in the service of public dialogue.

Contrast this with the brand of toughness put forward by these interrogators of President Bush during the 1992 campaign. As paraphrased by scholar Thomas Patterson, their questions were:

You say you haven't been good as getting your message across, but don't the polls indicate a rejection of the message in and of itself?

Hasn't the pattern of the primaries been such that the American people are looking for an alternative to you?

You've put Pat Buchanan behind you, but isn't Perot the inheritor of the anti-Bush vote?92

This is the journalist's cult of "toughness" in action. The thrust of these questions is toward delegitimating the president's re-election campaign, to place before Bush (and the rest of us) the evidence that he is, or seems to be, a "loser." Of course, the more likely effect is to de-legitimate the press, for such questions frequently lack any connection to the public's genuine interests. Presumably this is one reason 71 percent of Americans think the press "gets in the way of society solving its problems."

Glancing again at the "aggressive" questions listed above, imagine a phone call from the White House to Oppel similar to his conversation with Sanford. Could any editor say, with a clear conscience and a convincing tone, that citizens want addressed such "issues" as whether "the polls indicate a rejection of the message?" Would the editor threaten to leave a blank space under Bush's name if the president chose not to answer? Clearly not. But the Observer could and did print a series of questions from readers that the Bush campaign declined to answer.93

There is good reason, then, for any tough-minded political reporter to take seriously the notion of a "citizen's agenda." Absent the authority derived from the public's legitimate interest in serious discussion, the power of the press is not only less legitimate but less powerful. The public's "right to know" is ritually invoked; but it becomes a forceful claim only when attached to a reporting agenda that is persuasively "public," rather than narrowly professional.

The Charlotte Observer's 1992 experiment sought a restoration of journalistic authority through though a stronger connection to citizens and their deepest political concerns. Like the earlier initiatives at the Wichita Eagle, the experiment required journalists to lay hold of their power to imagine public life in a particular way, and to shape their reports accordingly. By becoming conscious of the design they were giving to political news—citizens as participants, politics as serious discussion—the journalists involved took a major step in improving that design. They began to address what Howard Kurtz called a "fatal disconnection, a growing gap between editors and reporters on the one hand and consumers of news on the other."


74 See James K. Batten, "Newspapers and Communities" in Jay Rosen, Community-Connectedness: Passwords for Public Journalism, (St. Petersburg: Poynter Institute for Media Studies, 1993), p 14.

75 Davis Merritt, Jr., "A New Political Contract: Must Restore Meaning to Election Campaigns," Wichita Eagle, Nov. 13, 1988, p. 3B.

76 Davis Merritt, Jr., "Up Front, Here's Our Election Bias," Wichita Eagle, Sep. 9, 1990, p. 13A.

77 For an example of such an analysis, see William Safire, "The Double Wedge," New York Times, Feb. 23, 1995, p. A23.

78 This description is adapted from Steve Smith, "Your vote counts: The Wichita Eagle's election project," National Civic Review, Summer 1991, pp. 24-30 and Davis Merritt, Jr., Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News is Not Enough, (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995), chap. 7. See also Michael Hoyt, "The Wichita Experiment," Columbia Journalism Review, July. Aug. 1992, pp. 43-47; and John Bare, "Case Study-- Wichita and Charlotte: The Leap of a Passive Press to Activism," Media Studies Journal, Vol, 6, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 149-160.

79 Wichita Eagle, Oct. 7, 1990, p. 1D, 2D.

80 On the adversarial pose see Adam Gopnik's analysis of journalism's "culture of aggression" in his "Read All About It," The New Yorker, Dec. 12, 1994, pp. 84, 86-90, 92-94, 96, 98-102. On the limitations of "balance" see Davis Merritt, Jr., Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News is Not Enough, (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995), pp. 19-20.

81 Ibid., p. 82.

82 This description is adapted from the Wichita Eagle's special reprint, Solving it Ourselves: The People Project (Wichita: The Wichita Eagle and Beacon Publishing Company, 1992); Davis Merritt, Jr., Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News is Not Enough, (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995), pp. 84-86 and from various internal planning memos provided to me by Merritt.

83 E.J. Dionne, Why Americans Hate Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991).

84 Davis Merritt, Jr., Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News is Not Enough, (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995), p. 86.

85 Ibid., p. 83.

86 This description is developed from Edward D. Miller, The Charlotte Project: Helping Citizens Take Back Democracy (St. Petersburg: Poynter Institute for Media Studies, 1994). See also John Bare, "Case Study-- Wichita and Charlotte: The Leap of a Passive Press to Activism," Media Studies Journal, Vol, 6, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 149-160.

87 Rich Oppel, "We'll Help You Regain Control of the Issues," Charlotte Observer, Jan. 12, 1992, p. A1. See David Broder, "Democracy and the Press," Washington Post, Jan. 3, 1990, p. A15; David Broder, A New Assignment for the Press, Press Enterprise Lecture No. 26 (Riverside, CA: The Press Enterprise, 1991), p. 12.

88 Michael Schudson, The Power of News (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995), p. 25.

89 Edward D. Miller, The Charlotte Project: Helping Citizens Take Back Democracy (St. Petersburg: Poynter Institute for Media Studies, 1994), pp. 65-7.

90 Ibid., p. 16.

91 Oppel's remarks are from the transcript of the Project on Public Life and the Press fall seminar at American Press Institute, Reston, VA, Nov. 10-12, 1993 (Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation, 1995), p. 117.

92 Thomas E. Patterson, Out of Order (New York: Knopf, 1993), p. 55-56.

93 "Readers' questions for Bush; some answered," Charlotte Observer, July 5, 1992, p. A2.


Disconnect: The Origins of Public Journalism
Wichita Eagle, "The People Project".

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