First there was “fortress newsroom.” That was the term I used in a series of speeches for the Pew Center for Civic Journalism in the early 1990’s dealing with the perceived disconnect between citizens and their newspapers. Fortress newsroom, I argued, was the walled enclave where journalists practiced their craft in a “just the facts” environment, using selective notions of objectivity and balance to shield themselves from the consequences of their work.
In fortress newsroom, readers are something of a necessary inconvenience. We need their business, but not their interference. In fortress newsroom, objectivity means independence defined by separation. Journalists report on their communities but cannot be part of their communities. And listening to readers, trying to understand their interests and motivations, is the business of ad reps and circulation managers.
That the fortress newsroom model was failing newspaper journalism became apparent in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as all of us began, finally, to wage war against the double-whammy of declining readership and plummeting credibility. I first challenged the model during early civic journalism experiments at The Wichita Eagle where I was managing editor. Those Eagle projects were built around the notion that newspaper journalists and citizens were active partners in the support of democratic institutions and that citizen voices were the bedrock of effective public service journalism.
But attacking fortress newsroom through the frame of civic journalism wasn’t easy or effective. Civic journalism was too great a flashpoint, and its critics successfully derailed the conversation with red herring assertions that civic or public journalism was equivalent to community boosterism.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) credibility project of 1997-1999 refocused the conversation. In two far-ranging ASNE credibility surveys, one of the key findings suggested that newspapers could slowly rebuild citizen trust by better explaining news values and decision-making and by engaging in conversations with readers about journalism.
“This research suggests that most of the public is fairly generous in giving us credit for trying to explain ourselves to them,” Judy Pace Christie wrote in the overview to a report on the 1999 credibility survey. “The best outcome, of course, is that the education will be reciprocal.”
Therein lies the foundation for the “transparent newsroom,” the antithesis of the fortress model. In the transparent newsroom, citizens are partners in the news conversation, not just passive consumers of news and information. In fortress newsroom, where separation is a primary value, there are no mechanisms to foster conversations between journalists and citizens. In the transparent newsroom, the opposite should be true; connection becomes a primary value and journalists have multiple, programmatic ways to ensure that the education occurring through conversation is, as Christie suggested, fully reciprocal.
I’ve experimented with various transparency strategies through the years at four different newspapers. In Wichita, editors went to malls and recreation centers and set up tables inviting readers to discuss their newspaper concerns. In Colorado Springs, we invited various community groups into the newsroom to audit and critique the paper’s journalism. In Salem, Oregon, open news meetings attracted community visitors almost daily.
The Transparent Newsroom
Our work at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, incorporates many of those earlier experiments but is enhanced by aggressive exploitation of the Internet, an ideal medium for journalist-citizen interaction.
As suggested by the ASNE studies, our goal is to improve the newspaper’s credibility in our communities by better explaining what we do and why, by soliciting and then listening to reader criticism, and by involving citizens, at some level, in news planning and decision-making. Among our newsroom initiatives:
- All of our daily news meetings are open to the public, and we promote that opportunity on Page One several times each week. Those participating in morning critiques often stay to talk with editors about issues that concern them. Invariably we learn something worth knowing or get a tip on a story worth pursuing.
- As many editors do, I periodically write about our journalism for the op-ed page. But the focus more often is on newsroom values, routines, reflexes and practices rather than particular stories or news decisions. One recent column articulated the core values that underlie newsroom policies and practices.
- Too small to support a full-time ombudsman, we hired a local journalism professor with no connections to the paper to independently critique our work and respond to citizen complaints once or twice a month. Sometimes Whitworth College professor Gordon Jackson tackles subjects of his choosing; sometimes he responds to reader questions.
- Five editors participate in an online blog called “Ask the Editors,” portions of which are repurposed for publication on the op-ed page each Friday.
- Five citizen bloggers representing a cross-section of political and social views critique the paper daily in an online feature called “News Is a Conversation.” Staffers can respond to the citizen posts as can other readers, generating an ongoing discussion of coverage issues, news values, and decisions.
- One of our online journalists produces a daily summary of our morning and afternoon news meetings posted online as “Daily Briefing.” The report summarizes the daily staff critique and highlights the major stories being worked for the next day.
- Periodically, I host online chats about the newspaper. Recent chats dealing with our investigation of Spokane Mayor Jim West drew hundreds of participants. One lasted nearly three hours. [See “Sharing All That Reporters Knew With Readers” for more about this investigation.]
- As part of our work on a pending redesign, we sent editors into the field to interview citizens—readers and nonreaders—about information needs and readership behavior. “Project Insight” was so successful, we’ll do it regularly.
Of course, The Spokesman-Review relies on traditional means of communicating with readers. We publish more than 5,000 letters to the editor each year, far more than most newspapers our size. Editors, reporters and support staff handle countless e-mail and telephone doorways into the newsroom for people to voice compliments, complaints and concerns, all promoted in print and online. And through the energetic innovation of Online Publisher Ken Sands, we have initiated numerous staff-written blogs that have become lively topic-focused conversations between journalists and news consumers.
Newsroom reaction to the transparent newsroom has been predictably mixed. Generally, as each initiative proves its value—or fails to damage the journalistic enterprise—staffers accept it. And some relatively new experiments, such as “News Is a Conversation,” were suggested by staff.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to newsroom acceptance will come later this year when we begin Webcasting our morning and afternoon news meetings, inviting observers to participate in the conversations through real-time, chat-style interaction. Will anyone bother to watch? Will we have any interaction? How will observers respond to the occasionally off-color tone of a newsroom meeting? Will it enhance credibility or further confuse matters?
Well, it’s an experiment, so we can’t be certain of the outcome. If it helps, we’ll continue. If not, we’ll learn our lessons and move on to something else. But in the spirit of transparency, we’ll tell readers what we’ve done and why.
To date, I know of no statistically valid research showing that initiatives such as these actually move the needle on a newspaper’s credibility. Anecdotal evidence here and in a few other markets suggests we can show improvement. And some of the research conducted at the tail end of the ASNE credibility project and later by the Readership Institute suggests the same.
In Spokane, our Reader Behavior Scores (a Readership Institute measure of readership intensity) have gone up during the past three years. Our own readership studies show some marginal improvement in reader trust measures. But much more needs to be done before any of us can say that the transparent newsroom can repair the damage wrought by fortress newsroom.
Steven A. Smith is the editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. His “Ask the Editors” blog can be found at www.spokesmanreview.com/blogs/editors/.