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October 3, 2003

Special to PressThink: Interview with Cole Campbell

"Journalists act as if the world exists in one form only, which they discover each day and duly record for others to discover," says Cole Campbell, the former editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, who often rejects standard press think.

I have sometimes called the American press “a herd of independent minds.” Cole Campbell has never been part of the herd, although he did run newsrooms as the top editor at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. After 09/11, for example, he argued that journalists should “help citizens and communities, including political leaders, identify and respond to the most significant threats to well-being.” Campbell is is the co-editor with Roy Peter Clark of The Values and Craft of American Journalism (University Press of Florida, 2002). Here is our exchange:

PressThink: You have been an editor and writer in Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Greensboro, North Carolina; Norfolk, Virginia and St. Louis, Missouri. You have seen how journalists operate in these towns. You have also reflected on how journalists in each place think about their community. So is press think different in different places? Does it have a local identity?

Cole Campbell: The Greensboro News & Record loves a well-written tale and has had many exceptional storytellers on its roster. The News & Observer in Raleigh finds its thrills in political intelligence and accountability, while The Chapel Hill News exults in the intelligence of its college-town readership, community contributors and staff. The Virginian-Pilot has a long tradition of overseas military coverage and in-depth explanatory journalism. And the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which brought us Teapot Dome and a third helping of the Pentagon Papers, looks high and low for official malfeasance.

But these papers are not, in the main, idiosyncratic. They are highly professional, and highly professionalized. So key professional norms— autonomy, dramatizing stories through conflict, paying more attention to political front-runners in a crowded field of candidates, or presuming that newsmakers are authority figures rather than citizens—were evident in these newsrooms when I came to work in each. The Norfolk staff made a concerted effort to examine professional norms and developed a wider frame of reference than most newsrooms have.

Professional norms work well as day-in, day-out default positions. They are efficient means of organizing and executing deadline tasks. But when another idea might be called for, in such instances as covering a 133-candidate field in the California recall campaign, falling back on these norms can lead to press think en masse. The trick, I think, is to embrace professional norms as useful, but recognize that they are fallible and contingent and need to be reviewed and recast. That, by the way, is a great function for journalism schools to perform.

PressThink: You said that journalists in all the cities where you worked saw newsmakers as authority figures rather than citizens. What is the chain of reasoning that lies behind this pattern?

Cole Campbell: A team from the University of Missouri journalism school, led by Esther Thorson, conducted an audit of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the late ’90s. One interesting finding was that the person least likely to be pictured in the paper was a woman over 50 (I think I am remembering the age correctly). Editors at the paper saw nothing unusual about that, saying that women over 50 are least likely to be newsmakers — elected or appointed officials, powerful business executives or high-profile sports or entertainment figures.

By definition, then, news is not normally about people making their way through life, or working together to improve their communities, or acting as caregivers to others, or similar such activities in which citizens and neighbors take part. News is restricted to people with “power over” others rather than people who have “power with” others to get things done. I think this stems from the Enlightenment preoccupation with seeing power as dominance rather than seeing power also as capacity. And it’s a useful way to reduce who journalists must pay attention to — people with official or celebrity standing.

PressThink: Can you tell me about someone in Raleigh or Norfolk or St. Louis who needed to be treated like a citizen, but instead was presumed an authority?

Cole Campbell: Former Senator John Danforth is a key political, professional and civic figure in St. Louis. He has headed up a regional visioning process called St. Louis 2004. That is a civic initiative calling upon the St. Louis business and professional community to contribute to the civic sphere, but its primary engagement with ordinary citizens has been to seek buy-in for its plans. If we could have gotten Danforth to see himself as a citizen and his initiative as an opportunity for other citizens to work together and think through St. Louis’ immediate future, that would have been a major reframing that would have given citizens more control over their own destiny— which I think is the purpose of journalism. Many in the newsroom, however, viewed the 2004 initiative as just another special interest of the powers that be. They argued that if the paper paid too much attention to this initiative, we would be colluding with the power structure.

PressThink: You said, “if we could have gotten Danforth to see himself as a citizen…” Who is the “we” that is active here?

Cole Campbell: “We” refers to we the journalists engaging him. The best interviewers, I think, get their subjects to think about things in new ways, starting from new perspectives, so that the interviewees discover things about themselves or their situations or their tasks that they have not yet contemplated. If we had gotten Danforth to see himself as a citizen and talk about his work from that perspective, he might have discovered some truly interesting approaches. Or he might have offered some possibilities and dismissed them, for whatever reason. He would not lose control of his choices. We would only prompt him to offer more than reflexive responses.

PressThink: In your tour as newspaper editor, from North Carolina to Virginia to Missouri and around the profession, what is the one piece of press think you found hardest to counter, dislodge, or challenge?

Cole Campbell: Most of my answer comes out of my tour of the profession outside of my own newsroom — in conference rooms, seminar rooms and conventions. The most stubborn bit of press think is a myopic belief in realism as opposed to imagination. Journalists act as if the world exists in one form only, which they discover each day and duly record for others to discover.

In fact, the world that unfolds every day is shaped by people both acknowledging what is— realism—and imagining what might be. We journalists tend to discount people’s efforts to envision what the world can become — until that vision is realized as an accomplished fact.

So we miss the opportunity to bear witness to the world becoming—or to help people guide more effectively what the world is becoming, rather than simply bemoan, begrudge or otherwise react to what the world has become. In the same way, we tend to see our professional practices — and mindsets as the only practices and mindsets, rather than reflecting on (imagining) how they might be improved.

PressThink: You have been out of daily journalism for several years now, working at the Poynter Institute, studying for a PhD, reading books you once skimmed. Quite a change from the pressures of a newsroom. Distance is supposed to be an advantage, so…when you look at daily journalism today, what do you notice about it that was not so apparent when you were meeting deadlines?

Cole Campbell: My major epiphany may derive from being freed of deadlines, but I think it comes more from being freed of institutional identification with a particular source of news and information. I was aware of this as a working journalist, but I nonetheless discounted it in my daily routines.

My biggest realization has been how much people construct their own daily news reports, plucking from a variety of official news sources such as newspapers or broadcast programs as well as from a variety of Web sites (news-oriented and not-news-oriented) and especially from conversations, phone calls and e-mails.

At the Post-Dispatch and the Virginian-Pilot, I acted on the assumption that the newspaper was the average person’s sumptuous banquet of news and information. I knew people might pick up a taste of something else here and there from other sources, much the way a grocery shopper might stop at a gourmet shop for a specialty item not usually stocked at Kroger’s or Publix. And both newsrooms collaborated with broadcasters and published onlnie news. But we thought of our newspaper as clearly the main meal.

In my own news consumption now, I begin my day with news from the Web, which I check along with my e-mail before I’ve picked up the Chicago Tribune from my doorstep. Often the Tribune’s lead headline frames a topic I’ve read about 16 to 20 hours earlier on the Web in a way that suggests I surely must know nothing about it since I haven’t gotten the Tribune until just now. During the invasion of Iraq, I skated across cable news channels, which are clustered on adjoining channels by my cable provider, never developing a favorite one because I was interested less in what their reporters or commentators had to say than in their photojournalism and whether Donald Rumsfeld was doing his daily dance with the press.

I get a handful of e-mail publications on health and economics. I listen to WBEZ (public radio) when I’m in my car. I return to the Web when I want to find a particular fact such as a sports score or an update on a player or coach. I get personal e-mails with hotlinks to interesting articles from people who are helping me edit the world of news and information, just like my mother used to send me clipping from my hometown paper (the Winston-Salem Journal). I talk to colleagues and cousins for the inside skinny on a variety of topics. I scan magazine racks for in-depth treatments on topics that capture my fancy and buy specialty journals or literary-style magazines when I want to focus on a subject.

Some of this is a daily ritual, but it is not a sophisticated effort at constructing Web filters and creating a Daily Me. It’s much more like moving through the world and grazing at what this abundant infosphere offers, supplemented by very specific searches at very specific moments on very specific topics. I think newsrooms need to be thinking much more creatively about their place in an overall information ecology, rather than acting as though they are the information ecology.

I think newspapers might do well to reinvent themselves as print portals to a wide variety of news sources. The paper can position itself as a place to begin—or as a place to come back to—in seeing how all this news and information can be pieced together to create a coherent picture of the world. Right now, newspapers are an cacophonous assemblage of reports; they are not a coherent synthesis.

PressThink: Final question, Cole: recalling all the journalists you worked with as an editor, which book would you have them read to be better journalists, if you could have them all read and absorb the lessons of one book?

Cole Campbell: My first impulse was to name John Hersey’s Hiroshima, because it is a lovely fusion of craft and purpose. He uses a handful of Hiroshima survivors to weave multiple narratives on the aftermath of the atomic bombing. Beyond being a great read, the book is a classic of journalism as bearing witness, and it has an undeniably moral purpose — to help us know what happened and, by knowing, take some responsibility for it. My fear in recommending it is that it might be dismissed as the exception (I never get to write book-length journalism! I never cover historical events of this magnitude!) or admired only for its craft and not appreciated for its purpose.

So the book I’ll recommend instead is Daniel Yankelovich’s Coming to Public Judgment. It is not an example of journalism or about journalism (although Yankelovich writes about journalism in passing, and not fondly). It is about what David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation calls “public politics” — about how people work through what we journalists think of as issues in the news and how they come to public judgment about them (constrasted with the much more visible “public opinion”). If journalists read this book and work through its implications for their work, I think they could find ways to reinvigorate and transform journalism to make it of inestimable value to people struggling to understand, and shape, the world.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 3, 2003 9:19 AM