In the previous chapter we profiled the rationale, concepts, and goals of public journalism as explained by the people defining the movement. This chapter examines how these ideals are put into journalistic practice. The shadow that public journalism casts across the news media extends far and wide, and continues to grow. Although newspapers have been the primary practitioners, many of the most amibitious experiments have teamed newspapers, television, and radio in an attempt to broaden the exposure and appeal of public journalism to citizens. The goal of cross-media projects has also been to produce a type of synergy, which researchers hypothesize increases impact or media effects. What follows is a sampling of projects, beginning with the early attempts at the Wichita Eagle and Charlotte Observer that became exemplars for the development of public journalism practice. It is worth noting that from the start public journalism was seen as a fundamentally different practice that extended the recommendations of the Hutchins Commission from social responsibility into activism. Much of the controversy about public journalism has focused on those practices that use the media’s resources to stimulate activity aimed at producing a desirable social end. Bare (1992), in a case study of two seminal projects titled, Wichita and Charlotte: The leap of a passive press to activism,

saw newspapers combining public journalism practices with emerging electronic media to create a new role for the press. He wrote:

By allowing readers to decide which issues newspapers cover and giving readers opportunities to interact with their local newspaper through citizen panels, phone banks and electronic bulletin boards, editors of the Eagle and the Observer are working to elevate newspapers to new media status. By rejecting the role of the passive observer and leaping into community problem-solving efforts, newspapers have an opportunity to move beyond the role of town crier and toward the role of town healer. (p. 158)


After the 1988 presidential election, editor Davis Merritt used the paper’s editorial page to bemoan the state of political campaigns and the media’s coverage of them. He feared the same type of coverage-focusing on the “horse race,” political strategies, and little discussion of issues important to the public-was being repeated in early stages of the 1990 Kansas gubernatorial campaign. In August 1990, Merritt (1998) sought to change the focus of the state’s campaign away from what he wrote was “carefully managed simplemindedness” into a reporting effort more centered on issues that citizens wanted candidates to address. In an editorial in early September, Merritt (1990) announced “the Eagle has a strong bias. The bias is that we believe the voters are entitled to have the candidates talk about the issues in depth” (p. 13A). This early public journalism effort experimented with ways of altering coverage by taking the focus off the candidates and putting it on the public. The idea was that if the media covered issues the public thought were important, then more people might feel involved in the political process, thus reversing a trend of low voter turn-out. The Eagle’s owner, KnightRidder, provided resources to survey public opinion and conduct postelection research. The Eagle also got ABC television affiliate KAKE to join the project, hoping to increase the visibility of the effort. At the Eagle, the plan became informally known as “the voter project,” and it was promoted in the paper under the heading Your Vote Counts. Merritt (1998) wrote, “The thrust of the plan was a straightfoward, unabashed campaign to revive voter interest backed by a total focus on the issues voters were concerned about as reflected in survey results” (p. 85).