Local journalism, civic life and “The Wired City”

Paul Bass speaking at the New Haven Independent's 10th-anniversary party, Sept. 15, 2010.
Paul Bass speaking at the New Haven Independent’s fifth-anniversary party, Sept. 15, 2010. Yes, that’s two-time U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon in the background.

This article appeared previously at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The star attraction was supposed to be Diane Ravitch, a prominent critic of education reform. But the real stars were the audience members themselves.

I had driven to New Haven on this day in late November 2010 to see if Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, could pull off an audacious experiment in civic engagement. The Independent, a nonprofit online-only news organization, is the principal subject of my new book, “The Wired City.” The subtitle — “Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age” — reflects my belief that news can’t survive without public participation. What we got that night was full immersion.

Stage right, Ravitch sat with 11 other people — principals, teachers, school officials, a high school student, a board of education member and the like. Stage left, a half-dozen media folks and elected officials, including Mayor John DeStefano, were live-blogging the event. The forum was webcast on television and radio, as well as on the websites of the Independent and the New Haven Register, the city’s daily newspaper. Viewers at home — and, for that matter, those in the auditorium who had laptops — were able to engage in a real-time, online conversation with the live-bloggers. Afterwards, readers posted a total of 53 comments to the two stories the Independent published (here and here). The archived video was posted as well. Finally, in a touch that seemed almost old-fashioned, the 200 or so people who attended were invited to line up at two microphones during an extended question-and-answer period.

Among the myriad crises facing journalism, perhaps none is more vexing than civic illiteracy. Starting in the 1990s, leading thinkers such as New York University’s Jay Rosen began sketching out ways for news organizations to listen to their audience’s concerns and to shape their coverage accordingly. This “public journalism” movement, as it became known, fizzled as newsroom budget cuts and criticism from traditional journalists took their toll.

But if the audience doesn’t care about the public-interest aspects of journalism, then there really isn’t much hope for a revival. Over the years, newspaper publishers have responded to the decline of civic life by loading up on celebrity gossip and so-called news you can use, such as personal finance and cooking tips. It’s a losing game, because there are always going to be better sources of such information than the local newspaper.

More than a dozen years ago the Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, in his classic book “Bowling Alone,” found that people who were engaged in civic life — voting in local elections, taking part in volunteer activities, attending religious services or participating in any number of other activities — were also more likely to read newspapers. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.

Trouble is, Putnam’s machers and schmoozers were aging even then. And so it is up to news organizations not merely to serve the public, but to nurture and educate the public so that it is engaged with civic life, and thus with the fundamental purpose of journalism.

C.W. Anderson, in his book “Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age,” writes that “journalists [report] the news in order to call a particular form of public into being.” Along similar lines, I argue in “The Wired City” that creating a public is at least as important as reporting on its behalf. No longer can it be taken for granted that there is a public ready to engage with news about last night’s city council meeting, a speech by the mayor or plans by a developer to tear down a neighborhood landmark and replace it with yet another convenience store.

Howard Owens, the publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit site in western New York that I also write about in my book, once put it this way:

Local community news is currently only a niche product. Entrepreneurs need to think about not only “how am I going to appeal to the people who care now, but how am I going to get more people to care about their community so I can grow my audience?”

In researching “The Wired City,” I learned that the readership for the New Haven Independent comprises a wide swath — elected officials, city employees (especially police officers and teachers), leaders and activists in the African-American community, dedicated localists and members of what struck me as a surprisingly large and politically aware group of bicycling advocates.

Though the Independent’s audience is not as large as that of the New Haven Register, its concentration inside the city limits and its popularity among opinion leaders — “the grassroots and grasstops circles,” as Michael Morand, an associate vice president at Yale, described it to me in an interview — gives the site outsize influence. Indeed, it was the Independent’s relentless coverage of a controversy over the video-recording of police actions by members of the public that led to a clarification from the police chief that such recording was legal. It also led to mandatory training for all officers.

Thus what we see in New Haven, in Batavia and in other places where news organizations are trying new methods of bridging the divide between journalism and the public is a revival of the ideas Jay Rosen and others first began championing two decades ago. “What we today call ‘engagement’ was a central feature of many civic-journalism experiments, but in a way we were working with very crude tools then,” Rosen told me in 2011. “It’s almost like we were trying to do civic engagement with heavy machinery instead of the infinitely lighter and cheaper tools we have now.”

The “wired city” that I argue the New Haven Independent brought into being is a community built around local news, empowered by the “lighter and cheaper tools” that have become available during the past decade and a half. Through events like the Diane Ravitch forum, through carefully (if not perfectly) curated user comments and through the now-taken-for-granted convenience of always being just a few clicks away, the Independent has succeeded not so much as an entity unto itself but as the hub of a civic ecosystem.

As Clay Shirky has observed, with local newspapers slowly fading away, no single alternative will replace what they once provided. We need a variety of experiments — for-profit, nonprofit, cooperative ownership and voluntary efforts. The challenge all of them face is that serving the public is no longer enough. Rather, the public they serve must first be assembled — and given a voice.

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

A celebration of non-profit journalism

Paul Bass. Yes, that's Linda McMahon in the background. Click on image for more photos.

Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon of Connecticut was there. So was New Haven Mayor John DeStefano. So were about 150 other friends of the New Haven Independent as the non-profit news site celebrated its fifth anniversary on Wednesday evening.

“It’s a powerful idea, which is that out-of-town corporations that could care less about us no longer own our news. They no longer control our news. We the people control the news,” Independent founder and editor Paul Bass told the crowd. (Click to hear Bass address the crowd.)

The party was held in the third-floor offices of La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, a Spanish-language newspaper where the Independent has use of a spare room. Bass was introduced by Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, publisher of La Voz, who also chairs the board of the Online Journalism Project, which publishes the Independent.

“At La Voz Hispana we’re very proud to have the New Haven Independent here with us, and we want to wish cien años — 100 years more,” Rodriguez-Reyes said, standing on a chair and holding aloft a glass of wine.

One of the goals was to unveil a voluntary subscription system that Bass hopes will make the Independent less dependent on foundation grants. Readers are being asked to pay $10 or $18 a month. As it turned out, though, money barely got a mention.

“We didn’t want people feeling like we got them in there, and then we were going to hit them up,” Bass told me afterwards, adding that many of the folks who showed up were already financial backers.

Was the party what Bass had expected?

“I guess,” he said. “Sorry, what am I supposed to say? Norma loves to throw parties. I hate parties.”

The party was also covered by the Yale Daily News and, of course, by the Independent.

New York Times blunders on Blumenthal

Richard Blumenthal

It’s now clear that the New York Times was sloppy in its report on Connecticut Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal. Maybe the fact that he told the truth about his Vietnam-era military service doesn’t negate his saying something totally misleading a few minutes later. But the Times should have gotten out the whole story at once. You can consider me one Times reader who feels manipulated this morning.

To review: On Monday night, the Times posted a story reporting that Blumenthal had, on several occasions, falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam when he was in the Marine Corps. “We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam,” he said at a speech in 2008. Weirdly, the Times also reported that he’d apparently misled people about having been captain of the Harvard swim team. In fact, he was never a member.

Yesterday, in a follow-up, the Times reported that former congressman Chris Shays had grown increasingly uneasy over the years as he watched Blumenthal transform himself from a humble Vietnam-era veteran into someone who had actually served in the war. “He just kept adding to the story, the more he told it,” Shays was quoted as saying.

But then, later yesterday, the tide turned. The Associated Press reported that Blumenthal truthfully described his military service in the same speech in which he said “I served in Vietnam.” In the opening moments of the speech, he correctly described himself as “as someone who served in the military during the Vietnam era.”

How important is this latest development? I don’t know. We already knew that Blumenthal had often told the truth about his service, but that he had also, on occasion, allowed his audiences to believe he’d been in Vietnam. But to do both in the same speech? That suggests that maybe, as he said at a defiant news conference on Tuesday, it really was just “a few misplaced words.”

I don’t want to let Blumenthal off the hook. I think anyone who watches the full video clip would come away thinking he had served in Vietnam. But Times journalists should have moved heaven and earth to make sure they had investigated this thoroughly, especially since they were relying on a dime-drop from the campaign of Republican candidate Linda McMahon.

Democrats have apparently rallied around Blumenthal, the state attorney general, in advance of this weekend’s state convention. Blumenthal’s poll numbers have plummeted, but they may bounce back if he can create the perception that he has been wronged by the media. To that end, this story by NPR on the media’s role in perpetuating half-true stories about Blumenthal may help him.

In a statement to Politico, New York Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty said:

The New York Times in its reporting uncovered Mr. Blumenthal’s long and well established pattern of misleading his constituents about his Vietnam War service, which he acknowledged in an interview with The Times. Mr. Blumenthal needs to be candid with his constituents about whether he went to Vietnam or not, since his official military records clearly indicate he did not.

Trouble is, when you find yourself defending your reporting to other news organizations, that’s usually a pretty good indication that something went wrong. The Times had a perfectly good — and, I would argue, devastating — story about Blumenthal’s misleading statements regarding his military service.

By letting others reveal the existence of potentially exculpatory material, the paper now finds itself playing defense.

Update: The Stamford Advocate reports that Blumenthal, at the city’s Veterans Day parade in 2008, said, “I wore the uniform in Vietnam and many came back & to all kinds of disrespect. Whatever we think of war, we owe the men and women of the armed forces our unconditional support” (via Greg Sargent). More interesting quotes from Shays, too. I suspect we’re going to find that the Times took a perfectly legitimate story and blew it by not nailing everything down ahead of time.

Photo by Sage Ross via Wikimedia Commons.