Launch Pad: Remapping Debate

Three weeks until the site goes live

CJR’s new “Launch Pad” feature invites new media publishers to blog about their experiences on the news frontier. All of Craig Gurian’s columns can be found here.

Last year, my colleagues and I found ourselves in a very unusual and privileged position. The Anti-Discrimination Center (ADC), the not-for-profit organization where I’ve served as executive director since 2003, achieved a historic housing desegregation victory over Westchester County. Of societal significance, the resulting consent decree required Westchester to confront and begin to end the de facto residential segregation that plagues the county; of organizational significance, ADC received a very large sum pursuant to the federal False Claims Act in recognition of its role in uncovering fraud against the federal government.

We had the enviable task of deciding how best to use this sum. We budgeted some of the money so that we could continue doing civil rights work, particularly work that fosters the crossing of boundaries such as geography, race, and class and thus facilitates the ideal of “one community, no exclusion.” But we made our top priority the creation and sustenance of an online news journal that would focus in distinctive ways on the broad range of domestic public policy issues. We decided to call the journal Remapping Debate, and it launches October 12th.

I know what you’re thinking: “Not yet another online news venture!” You should probably add, “And how much is a journal that plans only to have a handful of full-time staff reporters going to be able to accomplish?” Well, if we were going to do the horse-race stuff, or be an aggregator, or serve up ten or twenty more commentators breathlessly slaying virtual dragons (including each other) every day, we’d save our money.

But we think that there is a fundamental (and democracy-corroding) paradox about the media ecosystem that needs to be addressed: for all the outlets and for all the bytes, the “why” and “why not” questions of public policy are too rarely addressed. Buried behind stories that explicitly or implicitly describe a particular policy as “natural” or “inevitable” or “realistic” are a bevy of underlying assumptions about the “impracticality” of alternative choices. The result is that robust policy debate is constricted, even at the moments when very large decisions are being made. Indeed, the treatment of a single policy direction as something akin to a natural phenomenon conceals the fundamental fact that each policy put or kept in place does reflect a decision that serves some interests more than others.

We want to be asking “why” and “why not” all the time: of those who assert that the only realistic future for older Americans is round after round of belt tightening; of those who resist requiring teachers to possess both deep substantive knowledge and highly developed classroom skills; and of anyone else who tries to pass off one-dimensional, self-interested solutions to complex challenges as the only way to proceed.

Some of what we’ll be doing will be in the nature of traditional press criticism. The heart of our work, however, will be original reporting, which we are committed to doing in a way that persistently challenges those we interview—whether the particular source is normally labeled “left, “right,” or “center”—to back up their statements with evidence and reason. Yes, I have already been told by someone with extensive mainstream newsroom experience that what we’re talking about is, in her view, “commentary” and not “news,” but I happen to think that our intent to probe and challenge actually represents an essential element separating news reporting from stenography. Our readers, of course, will judge.

We do think the time is ripe. There is already tremendous fatigue—both among producers and consumers of news—with the 86,400/31,536,000 pace (that’s an every second of every day and every second of every year pace). It is simply not a sustainable pace on any level. We’re going to be putting out forty-two weekly issues a year (with minor during-the-week fill in), and each edition is going to feature a modest number of long-form articles. We want our reporters to thrive, and we want our readers to thrive.

We know that Remapping Debate will not be for everyone. Happily, no one is telling us that we need to reach more eyeballs than anyone in the history of media. We have the added advantage of believing at our core that making every story count qualitatively is most important (asking ourselves not “how many stories,” but rather “how good is each one”). And, not insignificantly, because we have guaranteed financial stability over the next several years at least, we have the ability to focus our energies on building a solid record of accomplishment before we even begin the process of systematically looking to the foundation world in 2012 to supplement our self-funded effort (note to angels: feel free to get a head start in helping us out).

It has been a fascinating and exhausting road getting to the starting line. We have managed to persuade some wonderful reporters (and interns) to come aboard. But filling out our team has been harder than expected (was it an outlier who e-mailed recently, offended because our package did not match that offered by Bloomberg News, and because our application process was uniquely “onerous”?).

I am acutely aware that the list of things about which I need to learn is large indeed, and, over the next several Tuesdays, I’ll be trying to provide a window into some of the challenges we’re facing, including getting the word out on Remapping Debate; forging fruitful collaborations; reminding everyone that ADC has never been interested in political correctness in its civil rights work and would certainly never permit that discussion-inhibiting phenomenon to infect Remapping Debate; and persuading potential contributors that the supposed need to “personalize” every story is a destructive myth that locks reporters into a formula often inappropriate for policy stories.

I hope you’ll be rooting for us.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Craig Gurian is the editor of Remapping Debate. He can be reached at