Of course, it’s easy to romanticize this notion. In the Colonial town square, not all members of the public were created equal; there were elites (educated, wealthy) and non-elites (uneducated, non-white, female), and their opinions did not have equal weight in the public discourse. But the point is that the press was, at one time, very much a part of its communities, and as our nation grew more populous and more complex that connection began to break down. By the middle of the twentieth century—with the advent of the notion, pushed by Walter Lippmann and others, that the workings of government and society had grown too complicated for the common man—American journalism had abandoned its God term. The relationship with the people was replaced by a one-way conversation, from the press to the public, which persisted until digital technology turned that conversation on its head. Again, Carey: “Journalists primarily serve as conduits relaying truth arrived at elsewhere . . . . They transmit the judgments of experts, and thereby ratify decisions arrived at by that class—not by the public or public representatives.” Having embraced Lippmann’s philosophy, Carey suggested, “the press no longer serves to cultivate certain vital habits: the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, decide the alternative purposes that might be pursued.” He published this essay, “The Press, Public Opinion and Public Discourse” in 1995.
Jim Amoss, the editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, understands this need to connect with the public. Much has been written and said about how, after Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed their city, the staff at the Times-Picayune got angry and began fighting to save southern Louisiana with a sense of activism that was atypical in the cautious mindset of modern American journalism. They became advocates for their community. Amoss is quick to insist that the story of his newspaper during and after Katrina has been mythologized a bit, and yet, “I think the lesson in what happened to us is that newspapers must exude a sense of being of their communities,” he says. “To want for it what you want for yourself and your family. The opposite end of that spectrum is that readers sense when a newspaper is detached and not really of the community. Even before Katrina, this newspaper tried to achieve this, but it really came to the forefront after Katrina. And the readers have not forgotten it.” (It’s worth noting that this activism has brought a degree of financial success, too, as the Times-Picayune has one of the highest market penetration rates in the country.)
Issues of coastal restoration and storm protection are central to the paper’s coverage. “We are constantly championing them and finding new ways to bring them to the forefront of the public discourse,” Amoss says.
It isn’t that the Times-Picayune has become a thunderous voice of dissent in any classic sense—in most ways it remains a fairly conventional newspaper. But the narratives on these core issues are driven by the paper’s commitment to figure out what is best for its city and region, and as a result the narratives are central to the public discourse in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, regardless of whether the mayor’s office, or the oil companies, or the state legislature are providing pegs for the stories. The Times-Picayune drives the agenda.
How might a newspaper do this without a tragedy like Katrina to force the issue? One way to think about what happened to the Times-Picayune is that circumstances overtook it, left it with no choice but to refine and reassert its mission. In a sense, the same thing is happening to journalism broadly: a storm of change is blowing away the old ways.
We have an opportunity, then, to build a twenty-first-century version of that Colonial-era connection between the press and the public. But it’s going to look radically different. In our March/April issue, Amanda Michel wrote about her experience directing OffTheBus (OTB), a national citizen-journalism project that covered the presidential campaign, and more specifically about what the professional press might learn from OTB. I remain extremely skeptical of the notion that “citizen journalism” can ever replace professional journalism. Doing serious journalism well is difficult and time-consuming. It is not a hobby; it is a job. To suggest that people will just squeeze it in around other jobs, kids, meals, sitcoms—around life—is absurd.