Topics: Civic Communication
Herald editors and reporters meet with invited members of established area organizations (homeowners' associations, health care providers, small business owners, etc.) to discuss what's on the minds of people in that segment of the community. With rare exceptions, community participants have had no regular contact with the paper and its representatives. Meetings are held at community sites and kept small. Conversations are transcribed, indexed and placed into the Herald computer system. Editors and reporters have free access to transcripts and are urged to use them as source material or to help frame issues and ideas. In early 1994, the paper started discussing ways to share the best of what is heard and learned with readers directly.
A case study by Project on Public Life and the Press
New York University, Department of Journalism,10 Washington Pl.
New York, NY 10003, (212) 998-3793
© Project on Public Life and the Press,1994 The Project is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Miami Herald (newspaper)
1 Herald Plaza
Miami, FL 33132-1693
(305) 376-3589 (Weitzel)
(800) 727-6472 x3589
(305) 376-8943 or 2287 (fax)
No. newsroom employees: 400+
Circulation area (Pop.): Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe Counties in south Florida (roughly 4 million)
Pete Weitzel, senior managing editor
When and how did this initiative get started?
The project grew out of a series of in-house discussions about ways to improve staff understanding of area citizens. This effort was considered especially important in Miami, where the community itself is increasingly diverse. "Our blacks, our whites, our Hispanics are not the typical black, whites, Hispanics," Weitzel said. "...They're not spending a lot of time in the community, they're not joiners. They only know the community through reporting, and that's insular in and of itself." At the outset, the Herald hired public policy consultant and Kettering Foundation Associate Richard Harwood to help plan the initiative and conduct training for Herald staff.
What are the goals of the initiative?
The long-term goal is to have a wiser newsroom, Weitzel writes, "one that intuitively connects the news to readers; that presents information about the community and what is happening in a way that is meaningful and useful to citizen-readers." The initiative also seeks to increase newsroom awareness of issues affecting a broad range of people in a widely diverse community.
What does the initiative entail?
At each meeting, five specially trained editors and reporters meet with 10 to 12 residents in two-hour conversations convened by Herald staff. The conversations draw out issues that concern residents of the area; participants are asked to limit comments about problems with the newspaper to private conversations after the meeting. Each meeting is tape-recorded, then transcribed, indexed by subjects covered, and placed in a computer file where it is available to reporters and editors. After every two or three conversations, Weitzel sends a newsletter to staff summarizing topics covered and explaining again how to use the transcripts. Every 3-4 weeks, transcripts move into the paper's library data base.
How many people are working on it?
About 100 newsroom staffers have taken part in a conversation. Direction and legwork are provided by Weitzel and a project coordinator who also has other responsibilities, with assistance from part-time transcribers as needed. No more than five Herald staffers attend any one conversation.
Response to the Initiative
In the newsroom:
Those who have participated in conversations tend to be enthusiastic about the contact with "real people." Others are indifferent. "And some will never sign on," Weitzel writes.
Transcripts have been used to focus coverage and to generate story ideas. For example, one editor developed a major feature on urban fear and its effects after reading the transcripts. Reporters may turn to the transcripts to source stories; however, they must contact conversation participants to obtain permission to quote. Editors have begun to pick up story ideas from the conversations, and in isolated cases, reporters are using transcripts to come up with sources or to focus coverage.
Elements incorporated into regular newsroom routines and/or culture:
Weitzel expects it to be a year or so before newsroom staff fully understand what is being done and the resource available to them. Ideally, staffers would make the transcripts a part of their regular routine, turning to them to source stories, to generate ideas and to generally get a better feel for the communities they cover.
In the community:
The project has been deliberately low key. It is not advertised. There have been only two small footnotes to stories where Conversations was a key element and thus needed to be noted to provide context to the reader. Each of those, however, generated a number of calls from individuals/groups expressing an interest in participating. People who have participated are extremely positive. Some simply appreciate a chance to talk with the Herald. Some have met people, shared conversation and contacts, and come away feeling positive. Some have said they welcomed the opportunity to have serious and stimulating discussion of issues. One woman in a note of thanks asked if the paper could direct her to any community discussion groups. A side benefit: Weitzel believes people are more open in their comments during forums than they would be if they were talking to reporters directly. Despite the caveat that they are being taped and that a reporter may later call and ask for an OK to quote from a conversation, "they're not thinking so much about how would this look in the paper tomorrow."
Overall lessons - successes and failures:
It's a lot of work, particularly the logistics and transcription. "You have to be dedicated, you have to be prepared to say I'm not going to have an immediate turnaround and not provable, demonstrable results," Weitzel said. "You have to go at it with faith in the process and the value of making sure your newspaper is listening to people and that information is somehow being shared with people who use it."
Case study written by Lisa Austin, Assistant Director of the Project on Public Life and the Press, October 1993 with March 1994 revision based on written update from Pete Weitzel. Lisa is also a member of the CPN Journalism editorial team.
Project on Public Life and the Press
New York University
Department of Journalism
10 Washington Pl.
New York, NY 10003
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