Publication Date: Wednesday May 21, 1997

Our Town: A series of civic involvement

It might make a better story if I said I had reservations when Mike McDevitt, a Ph.D. candidate at the Stanford Department of Communications, approached me about the possibility of doing a joint civic journalism project with the Palo Alto Weekly. But I didn't. Not really. Nor did my staff. That is not to say we didn't have concerns about "civic journalism" as a whole or, in practical terms, how we would pull off such a joint project as envisioned. Those concerns eat at me at this very moment.

But the timing was right for such a project. So was the topic. And as Mike and I discussed the details over lunch on campus one day and later when I had the opportunity to talk with Professor Steven Chaffee, chairman of the Department of Communication, the idea became even more compelling.

The real work came when the 40 students in McDevitt's Political Communication 170 class and members of our staff jointly set out to talk to, photograph and survey the homeless, political leaders, merchants, police and residents about the recently adopted sit-lie ban and the issue of homelessness in this community.

The result of this work can be found today on pages 22 through 29. This is the first in a four-part series called "Sidewalk Standoff: Panhandling and homelessness in Palo Alto." The series will run through June 4. It will conclude with a fourth part that will appear sometime in June, but our hope is it will not really end there. And that is where the whole concept of "civic journalism" comes into play.

What is civic journalism, or public journalism to which it is often referred?

It's a idea more than a formula, one based on the premise that newspapers need to move beyond detachment and being mere messengers of society's problems. They need to take an active role in provoking community discussion and seeking solutions.

Examples of newspapers that have been involved in civic journalism abound. The Charlotte Observer featured a 19-month, in-depth series on crime in nine city neighborhoods. The series, titled "Taking Back our Neighborhoods," sought reader involvement and civic participation in finding solutions. The Bremerton Sun in Washington held 47 town meetings in developing an area plan for preserving open space. The Wisconsin State Journal led a media team that explored budget problems faced by the University of Wisconsin's 26-campus system. The result was a project called "We the People, Wisconsin," which produced a list of recommendations for university regents.

"Public journalism calls on the press to help revive civic life and improve public dialogue--and to fashion a coherent response to the depending troubles in our civic climate," said New York University Professor Jay Rosen in a recent American Journalism Review article. "Its primary claim is that the press can do more . . ."

The principle has its share of critics. Many of those are journalists who fear an abandonment of the media's longstanding responsibility for impartiality. But the objective is not advocating certain solutions. It advocates involvement.

Professor Chaffee and McDevitt recently received a grant from the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Center for Public Journalism to study the impacts of civic journalism projects in North Carolina, Wisconsin and in San Francisco, where the Chronicle offered a series last year called Voice of the Voter. "We were able to show that in these three cities, that civic journalism projects did increase the frequency in which citizens talked about those issues" discussed in the series, said McDevitt. They also found that people who normally would not participate in the political process were getting involved.

Our series is far less complex than those mentioned above. But it is, perhaps, unique in that it involves a university journalism class and local newspaper working together in exploring an issue of local concern.

The issue we have selected is homelessness with an emphasis on the recent emotional debate about the city's sit-lie ban. Today and next week we will explore the roots, impacts and many perspectives of this issue.

On June 4, we will get into the emotion behind this issue with the help of roundtable discussion of those who are intimately involved. Shortly after that we will note the results of a survey McDevitt's class will be conducting of Palo Alto residents, focusing on their views on the local homeless problem, the sit-lie ban and the media coverage.

But the critical element in all of this is citizen participation. We encourage readers to call or write to us, or join in a discussion group on our Web site at Share your views about the project and the principle of civic journalism. Or better yet, share your thoughts and solutions for the problems showcased in this series.

Public journalism advocates do not have an agenda, noted author James Farrows, the Washington editor for The Atlantic Monthly in a recent address on civic journalism. "They do, however, find it acceptable to be biased in favor of political participation . . ."

Paul Gullixson is editor of the Weekly.