Archive for October, 2007

Pro Publica

One of my professional highlights occurred before my formal career even started – as a high school newspaper reporter.  After some hard-core investigative work, my fellow “journalists” and I shined a huge spotlight on the farce that was being called school facility security.  (We finally admitted to the school principal at our 15th high school reunion that we might have stepped over the line just a bit when we broke into the school to prove just how easy it was.)

The point is, it was extremely personally rewarding to be at the center of uncovering the truth…and the result was systematic change that benefited the entire school community. 

This month, a philanthropic couple in California announced they would fund a bureau of 24 investigative journalists based in NY City.  Called appropriately “‘Pro Publica,” the staff will work under the direction of former WSJ managing editor Paul Steiger. The reporters will have license to pursue long-range stories that few news organizations have the stomach or budget to invest in. Once the stories are complete, they will be offered to existing media channels for publication.

Not surprisingly, the journalism community has greeted the announcement with mixed reaction. Will established and credible news organization actually run full length investigative pieces by a group of journalists other than their own?  What guarantees are there, if any, that the increasingly media saturated public will pay attention? Does Pro Publica risk luring much needed talent away from local media establishments to NY?  

 If local media establishments are no longer supporting this type of much-needed journalism, it seems this new approach to funding investigative reporting is a good alternative. But I hope our generous philanthropists will also find ways to support the careers of those dedicated to exposing their own local school facility security issue, be they local reporters committed to their own community or even the young high school reporter eager to compete for a Pulitzer.

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My master’s degree thesis at Johns Hopkins evaluated civic journalism and its impact on actual voter participation.  (Or at least I think it did! I wrote in the mid 90s in an era before we saved everything on discs and I haven’t seen a hard copy since my last move.)  My interest in civic participation was  again sparked by an article in the October 14th edition of European Voice, a weekly magazine published in Brussels.  (To give credit where its due, the byline belongs to  Simon Taylor with the Economist. ) The story described an event in which a German insurance company and the European Commission brought together a group of 362 citizens for 2 ½  days.  The group was given a deep dive on several hot topics facing the coalition government and then given a chance to debate and vote on several hot topics. Attitudes were benchmarked before and after the workshop. (By the way, this is a great idea for a corporation wishing to increase visibility in the EU.)

In summary, significant shifts in opinion were recorded.  For example, on economic and social policy, those polled were more prepared to consider sacrifices such as raising the retirement age after participating in the event. Support for allowing additional countries to join the EU (specifically Turkey and Ukraine) fell by double digits. The sentiment seemed to be that the more players in the room, the less likely the EU could ever get consensus. 

The actual opinions don’t interest me as much as the process and the outcome.  How delightful it would be if every American were required to spend even ½ day learning about a major issue distinguishing US president candidates before the election. They could even pick the issue that mattered most to them!  One could argue that this education takes place through the campaign and resulting media coverage process. But I’d be more comfortable having a  less subjective third party lead the learning and debate exercise, such as a university.

My former boss US Senator Bob Graham has joined others in an effort to reenergize American civic life. I also follow closely the work of Public Agenda, a non-profit with a similar goal of educating and stimulating the citizenry.  To this day I can picture a picture I believe taken by Washington Post photographer Carol Guzy of South Africans who walked not miles but days to enjoy the privilege of voting after the fall of apartheid. 

I hope we Americans will honor our democratic form of government in November 2008 by taking just a moment to “get out the vote”…and do so intelligently. 

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