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In a recent column I addressed the roots of “civic journalism,” the latest pop trend designed to save the dying print news media establishment.

I revealed that my own research into this somewhat nebulous concept showed it was actually conceived as a political propaganda tool by left-wing activists. (See “The truth about civic journalism,” June 4, 1997.)

But, you might ask, has it worked? Is civic journalism achieving any positive results?

Well, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post reports that the first evaluations of civic journalism in practice are in. New Jersey’s Bergen Record devoted significant resources to a civic journalism election coverage project last year.

“In 54 full pages over nine weeks, the paper published issue-oriented stories, interviews with voters, detailed candidate information and reader feedback,” Kurtz writes. “No insider tactics or horse-race stuff on these pages, which cost $100,000 to print and were prepared by nearly a dozen staffers.”

The Record used surveys and focus groups, funded by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, the foundation avidly promoting civic journalism as the cure for what ails the American press, and guess what it found: The project was a bust.

Fewer than one in five readers even remembered seeing any of the special coverage. Readers were generally not interested in campaign coverage of any kind. Readers did not change their opinions about the paper’s political coverage.

Typical comments were: “I would read if there were more dynamic personalities running.” (The Senate race pitted Robert Toricelli vs. Dick Zimmer.) “There are no issues to rile the people up.” “Who has the time to read the paper everyday?” “How much do you trust what you read?” “It’s slanted by who wrote it.”

Glenn Ritt, the Record’s vice president, wrote that the effort “provided us with a degree of humility about our research and capacity. …”

Indeed, the newspaper business is filled with people who have plenty of good reasons to be humble.

The National Newspaper Association, in cooperation with the American Society of Newspaper Editors, has been trying to find a new formulaic answer to the lethargy that plagues the business today. What their surveys and focus groups show is that millions of Americans, like me, find their newspapers boring and unimaginative.

What was even more alarming to the industry analysts was the fact that the public’s dissatisfaction with newspapers is shared by the journalists who produce it.

“Their morale is suffering, and they are pessimistic about the future role of newspapers in American life,” wrote the Washington Post’s Richard Harwood about the findings. “Only about a third of the editors and reporters in a survey of newsroom staffs by the ASNE find their own papers ‘usually very interesting.’ They rate their papers as less than ‘excellent’ in presenting virtually every category of ‘news’ and features.”

In other words, they have no pride in their work. They don’t enjoy what they do. They’re not having fun doing it. This is unbelievable to me — someone who grew up in the news business and could never imagine having more fun doing anything else. But it’s evidently true. You can see it, not only in the survey results, but in the quality of the products being produced by today’s newsrooms.

“The traditional news values of the labor force have changed significantly in the past decade,” continues Harwood. “There is far less interest today in being first with the news, in providing analysis and interpretation, in making the news report ‘entertaining,’ in appealing to a wide audience or in producing ‘investigative’ journalism. Many of today’s newspeople feel overworked, overstressed, underpaid and assigned to too many trivial tasks. They complain in great numbers about the lack of ‘leadership’ in newsrooms.”

Well, I don’t know how overworked or underpaid today’s reporters and editors are. But they are right about a lack of leadership in the newsrooms of America. Journalism today is being driven by polls, focus groups and agendas set by elite foundations.

The answer to sagging circulations and boring front pages isn’t going to be found in formulas. It will only be found when journalists rediscover their primary mission — to serve as the vigilant watchdog of government fraud, waste, corruption and abuse. That’s what true “civic journalism” is all about.

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