Civic journalism is likely to transform newsrooms thanks to the efforts of Pew Center’s J-Lab Institute and Jan Schaffer. Jan has always struck us as a kindred spirit when it comes to bringing fresh approaches to a traditional craft. Now, in her new role as executive director of J-Lab, she will have the resources to seek and develop new ways to engage and inform news audiences. Jan kindly agreed to answer a few questions from us about the institute and her hopes for it:
Q: How would you describe J-Lab?
The Pew Center was an incubator for civic journalism ideas. J-Lab will be an incubator for interactive ideas, in particular as they apply to public policy issues. We’re not going to be about bingo games.
Q: How has the definition of “civic journalism” changed since newsrooms experimented with it in the 80s and 90s?
In truth, civic journalism was the earliest form of interactive journalism. But in the late 80s and the 90s the interactions usually consisted of some kind of feedback from people — in the newspaper or on air, or some kind of direct face time with people in town hall meetings, focus groups, study circles.
Mid-decade, civic journalism went from journalists interacting with people in these somewhat large groups, to journalism interacting with people one-on-one with their civic mapping work. Civic mapping is merely a systematic way of going into a community and talking to enough people to find out who the real movers and shakers are — and then putting that information into a database for the rest of the newsroom to access.
With newsrooms moving to use the Internet, the possibilities for interactions have grown exponentially. So that now, journalists can interact with people (or people can interact with journalists) in news space, in real space (a room) or in cyberspace.
Q: Where do you see innovation coming from? Newsrooms, IT departments, schools, individuals?
In our civic work, most of the innovation came from regional newspapers, 250,000 circulation or less. They seemed to be the most nimble, had younger editors willing to take some risks and build their own legacies — and had less bureaucracy to slow things down.
But certainly we are seeing innovation in the adver-gaming world. And we are seeing it from some other non-profit sectors. Take the Citizens Union’s GothamGazette.com site on the 2001 elections. There are 10,000 journalists in New York City, but it took a non-profit to build that site. We are beginning to see how we can tap the intellectual muscle of universities to help newsrooms help citizens get smarter about important issues.
Q: What got you excited about this initiative?
The idea actually came to me about two years ago as a very logical outgrowth of all the experiments done under the name of civic journalism. We saw that if you create a safe haven for trying new ideas, and if you can help jumpstart those ideas with very modest funding — what you get are some exciting new ideas. It’s the closest thing to “applied research” that we have in journalism.
Q: In what fundamental ways do you see the roles of editors, reporters and news media changing, if any?
To a certain extent, I think that the public is less interested in what I was taught to produce in my career — which is, a finished story, handed to them, a fait accompli. And they are more interested in the process of informing themselves. They are building their own internal narratives about news and important issues, and the building blocks consists of many different “components” of information — some headlines, some drive-time radio, CNN as white noise in the office, emails, the web, Jay Leno, and, increasingly interactive journalism. This is where they might be able to query a dynamic database, “play” with choices around public issues, simulate various outcomes, calculate online tax consequences —yes, participate in the learning.
And this suggests that journalists might need to focus more on constructing some new components rather than the same old finished products.
Connect: Jan Schaffer can be reached at [email protected].