Once Upon A Time: Civic Journalism Revisited

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Guest Post:  Mitch Hurst

The idea of “civic journalism” instigated one of the more provocative debates within the mostly collegial world of institutional philanthropy back in the early to mid-‘90s. On one side you had program directors and officers, and maybe a few foundation CEOs, who wanted to poke around to identify ways that foundations could partner with media to infuse their news coverage with some social conscience.

On the other side you had the fourth estate-loving purists who were aghast at the idea of foundations pushing their weight around the newsrooms of America’s finest broadsheets. This camp included many former journalists who had transitioned to the PR departments of private foundations and viewed even those roles as being primarily journalistic.

There have been attempts to revive the civic journalism movement, particularly with coverage of political campaigns, but I was reminded of the earlier debate while reading Dan Green’s excellent piece on Forbes.com about media influence and social change. Green, who manages the Gates Foundation’s media and information grants, writes that an important transition has taken place in the media’s approach to advocacy:

“In just the past year, we have seen the beginnings of an important evolution:  many media organizations are moving from a largely agnostic relationship to their role in social change to openly discussing, pursuing and even attempting to track their impact on the issues they address.”

Green cites efforts by The New York Times to measure the impact of its news coverage and news operations like ProPublica that have publicly stated social-change missions. One could also point to The Huffington Post, or Fox News for that matter, as having unabashed agendas to influence readers and viewers in one direction or the other.

While Green focuses primarily on measurement and the need for media companies that are more directly involved in social change to use measurement tools that provide an honest picture of their impact, it has almost gone unnoticed that the journalism purists from back in the day didn’t just lose the debate; they got trounced.

It all started when those unshaven, pj-wearing bloggers posting online from their parents’ basements were roundly and wrongly dismissed by the mainstream media as irrelevant and, worse, unreputable. Now online citizen journalism has been mainstreamed and traditional media continues to grasp for an economic model that will keep it from suffocating.

The advocates for civic journalism back in the ‘90s were unfortunate to be too ahead of their time. They had to wait for the force of online technology and the flattening of the journalism landscape for their vision of how the media could both report the news and be a force for change to take hold.


Communications Network board member Mitch Hurst is founder of MH Communications and a frequent contributor to our blog.

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