Looking again for ways to extend journalism past just traditional reporting, the Detroit Free Press is using public journalism’s technique of civic mapping to help define journalist regimens of building sources, gaining knowledge about communities, and listening more carefully to those people who don’t customarily appear in our stories.

Civic mapping offers reporters definitive ways to find untapped sources for stories and also teaches journalists to listen in different ways when they find those sources. Not surprisingly, by applying these lessons we find we listen to familiar sources in a different way, too. Our stories reflect these new connections because they are told with more context and authority.

“Journalists have to come up with a new way to do what we do and report in different ways,” says executive editor Robert McGruder. “And we need to listen more and more and more.”

Since four of our newspaper’s journalists were trained in civic mapping skills last spring, the focus in the newsroom has been to build small successes in how these ideas improve journalism and, over time and by example, convince veteran journalists of its merit. Such an approach is critical at the start of any initiative. We have just started and have not broadly introduced mapping to the staff yet, but we see these new tools strengthen our reporting already.

Medical reporter Patricia Anstett, an 18-year Free Press veteran, used mapping techniques successfully in a story she reported on health issues within the city’s Arabic community. This was a topic she knew nothing about when work on the story began. Nor was she trained in civic mapping. But Anstett intuitively picked up on the multi-layered approach to community coverage after we had conversations about how this reporting approach works.

“I proceeded slowly and carefully. I listened. I did the research. I called dozens of people. But most importantly, I went back, again and again,” said Anstett. “Each time I went to Dearborn, I came back with a rich insight, sometimes small, sometimes big. I discussed a largely invisible community that, as our religion writer told me after reading the stories, had not been on anyone’s radar.”

Anstett’s series, “Life of Struggle in Promised Land,” which was published in July and August 2000, dealt with Iraqi Shiite refugees caught in America’s welfare and medical bureaucracy. It described how their refugee status and inability to speak English complicates their ability to get assistance from these programs. The issue is important to metropolitan Detroit because the region is home to one of the largest Arab populations outside of the Middle East. More than 25,000 Iraqi refugees have settled in this region since the Persian Gulf War.

The series generated emotional phone calls and e-mails from members of the Arab-American community and others. In turn, the Free Press made an effort to translate and reprint the series in Arabic and is discussing joint forums with the Arab-American community. The series also demonstrated the Free Press’s commitment to uncover and explore important issues for minority communities.

Civic mapping’s most direct impact on coverage is occurring in our Oakland County bureau, where our reporting focus is on community beats. Results there are encouraging, too. One reporter has discovered and written stories on the need for more funding for senior centers in places where resources are more focused on facilities for school-aged children. The scenario is usually the other way around, and he says he discovered this angle from spending time at a senior center. In civic mapping terms, this center represented “a third place,” one that without the broadening emphasis of this approach he probably would not have visited.

In civic mapping training sessions that several of us attended last spring (organized by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and The Harwood Institute), we were introduced to words that describe sources as “catalysts” or “connectors,” and “third places.” Catalysts are leaders whom people look to in their communities, and connectors are people who interact in lots of places and participate in lots of conversations. Third places turn out to be those places in a community where real people gather and talk about what’s important to them. We also examined why past practices do not always work and are less likely to work in the future, and brainstormed new reporting routines. Now in our newsroom we talk about finding stories and building sources and are constantly trying to think of new places and people to go to in our search. As an editor who has observed the benefits of this kind of reporting, I have some advice to offer other editors and reporters.

  • Look for “third places,” then give reporters time to spend there, as an observer, not a driver of conversations.
  • In return, expect reporters to bring back story ideas we wouldn’t have gotten if we’d stuck to our old way of covering the city.
  • Along the way, build the source list of catalysts and others in those areas and make that list visible and user-friendly for all reporters. An overall goal for mapping at the Free Press is to literally map these “third places” so they become more than a single reporter’s sources for listening and can be used by all as a newspaper’s listening post.

Our executive editor wants the Free Press to explore mapping because the credibility of a newspaper stands on how well it tells stories. If stories we tell do not ring true for readers and they recognize gaps in knowledge, perspective or context, our credibility suffers.

Public journalism is not new to the Free Press. Children First, an effort to report about the violence and abuse of children in a way that enables people to do something about it, began in 1993 and continues today. Former publisher Neal Shine’s mantra was that a newspaper ought to go beyond keeping score and get in the game.

Ultimately, public journalism strengthens reporting and adds community knowledge, not just information. It connects the dots of context, the cause and effect of the choices people make, and exposes government’s inability to solve complex issues. If done well, it gets citizens off the sidelines and into the game.

John X. Miller is public editor at the Detroit Free Press. He considers himself a civic journalist and has held top editing jobs at The Reporter in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and at USA TODAY. He is on the Pew Center’s James K. Batten Award Advisory Board.

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