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November 23, 2005

Guest Writer Steve Smith: Fortress Journalism Failed. The Transparent Newsroom Works.

He's the editor in Spokane: "The users of news aren’t hesitating. They are going to insist on an interactive, two-way flow of information, ideas and opinion— whether we like it or not. And if we don’t develop the user-as-producer model ourselves, others will do it for us or to us."

Special to PressThink

Fortress Journalism Failed. The Transparent Newsroom Works.
by Steven A. Smith
Editor, Spokane Spokesman-Review

“Transparent newsroom.” Just another buzz term? I don’t think so. Consider these examples from Spokane:

Transparency has been on my mind lately as I watch what’s happening in the national press. As a reader of the New York Times, I remain thoroughly confused about the Judith Miller fiasco. Most of what I know has come from industry watchers, cable pundits, Romenesko — and from executive editor Bill Keller’s internal communications, which are routinely leaked to the world. I wonder: How might the Times’ reputation, now taking another Blair-sized hit, have fared if Keller and his team had gone fully and transparently public with the details of their dilemma?

I am less confused about Bob Woodward’s role in the Plame case, and it’s partly because of Editor Len Downie’s decision to go public— and explain his judgment. Among other interviews, he went on CNN’s Reliable Sources to be questioned by Howard Kurtz, and he did an online Q and A with readers about his star reporter’s withholding of critical information. His answers were cautious, and he repeated himself a lot. But just by taking questions Downie established that the editor of the Washington Post is answerable to readers—and fellow journalists—when something happens to thrust the newspaper into the news. (See Rem Rieder, editor of AJR: Taking Their Questions, and Vaughn Ververs, editor of Public Eye, Sore Throat.)

In the days following Miller’s release from jail, Keller, whose editorship has never been easy, seemed uncertain of how best to represent The Times’ interests. I’m not sure he’s figured it out yet.

Downie, on the other hand, seems to have taken a step toward newsroom transparency, and away from “fortress newsroom,” even revealing some of the confusion, anger and frustration among Post staffers after Woodward’s revelations. What Downie now will discover is that transparency can lift the fog surrounding a newsroom controversy. Transparency—which includes being open about mistakes—can kill rumors and conspiracy theories that breed distrust. It can soften criticism, or at least direct it to the appropriate targets. (Where the mistake was made.) It can enhance credibility, but only if consistently followed.

That last is really the point. It’s a little counter-intuitive. But raising the window, fessing up, speaking directly to readers with a genuine openness actually enhances credibility. We’re learning that lesson in Spokane where we’re three years into our transparent newsroom initiative.

It didn’t seem like any initiative when we began it. The newspaper had taken a hit to its reputation over unaggressive coverage of its owners’ legal problems with the city, involving a company-owned downtown development project.

The Spokesman-Review hadn’t been properly inquisitive on that story. There had been some ethical lapses. Writing about those lapses and responding directly to readers in a series of community forums was an early experiment in transparency. And all indications are we closed the credibility gap on that issue, despite the fact that we had fallen down on part of the job.

Since then we’ve moved aggressively to achieve real—and by that I mean consistent, and routine—transparency with the people we serve.

In the days after I wrote about all this in the fall edition of Nieman reports , I’ve heard from several critics who worry that a more open newsroom will somehow cede control of “professional” journalism to the mob. They say we’ll lose authorship of the news we produce.

Others have told me they see value in openness, but the effort won’t help with circulation, or bring in younger readers, so it’s less valuable than another redesign or a free weekly tabloid or whatever innovation the consultants and researchers are pushing on us these days.

And I’ve even heard from a few of the veterans of the civic journalism wars of the 1990s who still argue that journalists produce the content, readers and viewers receive it, and any effort to make the exchange two-way violates sacred principles of separation and independence.

There is truth in all these hesitations. But the users of news aren’t hesitating. They are going to insist on an interactive, two-way flow of information, ideas and opinion— whether we like it or not. And if we don’t develop the user-as-producer model ourselves, others will do it for us or to us. Actually, that’s already happened.

Citizen participation in journalism may create a product that is more relevant, compelling, authentic and valuable than the journalism we did behind the fortress. The transparent newsroom isn’t really about “watching the sausage being made.” It lets the users of the newspaper get their hands dirty alongside the journalists. They produce some—a fraction, but it’s growing—of the content we publish daily.

That would never happen in “fortress newsroom,” a term I used in a series of speeches for the Pew Center for Civic Journalism in the early 1990s, when some of us were warning about the disconnect between citizens and their newspapers.

Fortress newsroom was the walled enclave where journalists practiced their craft in a “just the facts” environment, using selective notions of objectivity and artificial forms of balance to shield themselves from many consequences of their work.

In fortress newsroom, readers are something of a necessary inconvenience. We need their business, but not their ideas. In fortress newsroom, objectivity means independence defined by separation from… Journalists report on their communities but by newsroom law cannot be part of their communities. And listening to readers, trying to understand their interests and motivations, is the business of ad reps and circulation managers.

That the fortress newsroom model was failing newspaper journalism became apparent in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, which is when the industry began to wake up to declining readership and plummeting credibility, problems deeply upon us today.

I first fell out with the fortress during some early civic journalism experiments at The Wichita Eagle, where I was managing editor. Those Eagle projects were built around the notion that newspaper journalists and citizens were active partners in the support of democratic institutions and that citizen voices were the bedrock of effective public service journalism.

But attacking fortress newsroom through the frame of civic journalism wasn’t easy or effective. The civic journalism movement was too great a flashpoint and its critics successfully derailed the conversation by shouting code words at it, like “advocacy” and “boosterism.”

The turning point was The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) credibility project of 1997-1999. In two far-ranging ASNE credibility surveys, some of the key findings suggested that newspapers could slowly rebuild citizen trust by better explaining themselves and their decision-making, and by engaging with readers who have questions about the news and commentary they’re getting.

“This research suggests that most of the public is fairly generous in giving us credit for trying to explain ourselves to them,” Judy Pace Christie wrote in the overview to a report on the 1999 credibility survey. “The best outcome, of course, is that the education will be reciprocal.” And that’s the foundation for the “transparent newsroom,” which is simply the antithesis of the fortress kind.

I’ve been involved with transparency initiatives through the years at four different newspapers. In Wichita, editors went to malls and recreation centers and set up tables inviting readers to discuss their newspaper concerns. Crude. But poople came to talk and helped us understand several critical civic issues later addressed in the paper’s innovative “People project,” which marked one of the first times a newspaper let citizens actually help set the newsroom’s agenda.

In Colorado Springs, we invited community groups into the newsroom to audit and critique the paper’s journalism. Initiated as part of the ASNE credibility project, these community audits gave newsroom pros a glimpse into the often unanticipated, surprising ways readers interpreted the paper’s journalism. The process was never comfortable, particularly
when the staff took criticism from minority groups. Reporters and editors believed these groups were being well served; the auditors didn’t agree.

In Salem, Ore., open news meetings attracted community visitors almost daily. Open news meetings were not a new idea, and I’d been involved in such efforts since Wichita. But citizens took full advantage of the opportunity in Salem. I cannot remember a visitor that didn’t contribute in some way to the day’s news agenda. Often reader ideas for stories would send reporters in unexpected and enormously valuable directions.

The Spokesman-Review incorporates many of those earlier experiments but now we have the Internet, an ideal medium for newspaper journalists to interact with readers as citizens. Earlier transparency efforts required significant commitment. It isn’t always possible to for people to come to your meeting, even though they might be interested. Now with a little commitment they can contribute a lot.

Transparency isn’t complicated. It says we can improve the Spokesman-Review’s reputation in the communiy by better explaining what we do and why, by soliciting and then listening to reader criticism, and by involving citizens, at some level, in news planning and decision making.

Among our newsroom initiatives:

Of course, The Spokesman-Review relies on traditional means of communicating with readers. We publish more than 5,000 letters-to-the-editor each year, far more than most newspapers our size. Editors, reporters and support staff handle e-mail and telephone doorways into the newsroom for people to voice compliments, complaints and concerns, all promoted in print and online. And through the energetic innovation of Online Publisher Ken Sands, we have started a bunch of staff-written blogs that have become lively, topic-focused conversations between journalists and the users of their product.

But we didn’t know that when we started. It’s the same with Webcasting our newsroom meetings. We plan to invite online viewers to comment on stories we’re developing and suggest ideas of their own. But will anyone participate in that way? How will observers respond to the occasionally off-color tone of a newsroom meeting? Will it enhance credibility or further confuse matters?

I understand why some of this seems so scary to journalists. The control issue is the biggest one. But we tend to forget that journalists always have control over what they publish, and with enough courage they can always say “no” to citizen-generated ideas that just won’t work.

The smart ones will recognize that transparency builds habits in journalists that are easier to trust. When they make a mistake, as Bob Woodward did, they will know from daily experience how to be open, and non-defensive. They will have many portals through which to communicate to readers, and answer questions. Leaked memos to an anxious staff won’t be one of them.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…


Steven A. Smith is editor of The Spokesman-Review, a privately held newspaper in Spokane, Wash., with a daily circulation of 107,000 and a Sunday circulation of 133,000. As editor, Smith supervises all news and editorial operations and a staff of 130 that produces three daily editions. He was named editor in July 2002.

Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years of the Statesman Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Salem, Ore. Previously, he was editor and vice president of The Gazette, a Freedom Communications Inc. newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was named editor in October 1995 and vice president in 1997. Fuller version.

PressThink’s Jay Rosen answered questions about recent controversies in the press at Transcript is here. (Nov. 22)

About “losing control,” and its myths. Here’s the note the Post appends to all its online chats, explaining what it controls and does not.

Editor’s Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Which is a balance-of-power solution: we choose the questions, you choose which ones to answer.

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten writes about transparency in Spokane: (Nov. 20):

To show how much it values its readers’ viewpoints, the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review has begun a program called the “transparent newsroom.” The editors invite the public to news meetings, encouraging them to watch and even participate as the editors discuss the news of the day, their plans for coverage, etc. With no disrespect to the members of the public — you know who you are — I think this is a terrible idea. If a horse produced by a committee comes out looking like a camel, a horse produced by a committee that is being assisted by well-intentioned, earnest, helpful, highly opinionated members of the public who happen to have this kind of time on their hands, if you know what I am saying, would come out looking like a … like a … like a …

“a wildebeest!”

I am quoting Doug Clark, who is a metro columnist for the Spokesman-Review.

The Seattle Times reports on the recall election for Jim West, the mayor in Spokane: (Nov. 27)

In this toughest campaign of a 25-year political career, West says he’s pitted against a caricature of himself drawn by recall sponsors and The Spokesman-Review, the local newspaper that since May has published nearly 150 stories about West, reporting allegations that he used his position as mayor to lure young men and that West sexually abused boys decades ago…

“I have no opponent other than the person they created who is supposedly me,” West said.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 23, 2005 3:22 PM