By: Garry Boulard
Virginian-Pilot editor emphasizes citizen reporting
NEW ORLEANS ? Just when newspapers and reporters are viewed as being dismally disconnected from the people they are supposed to be writing for, newspapers have an opportunity to enjoy a return to popular favor. That is, if they try to see the world around them the way their readers do.
“We may be missing an historic opportunity to think of our own interests by thinking of the public’s interest,” said Dennis Hartig, managing editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, at the 82nd annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications here this week.
Hartig contends most readers are not as interested in the political drama of “who is up and who is down” as many Washington, statehouse, and city hall reporters are. Instead, he says, most readers, while wanting to know the story behind any public figure’s ascent or descent, also desire solutions to their community’s vexing problems.
In an era when newspaper researchers are increasingly “slicing and dicing” readers into such demographic clusters as soccer moms, urban actives, and rack-and-rifles types, Hartig thinks newspapers would be better off to emphasize the one thing that everyone ? readers, reporters, editors, and even publishers ? have in common: their status as citizens of the republic.
“The word ‘citizen’ is all but banned from our vocabulary,” Hartig adds. But citizens ? engaged readers who want to see the country succeed ? like many things in a newspaper: hard news, sports, cartoons, and women’s sections, but they also like the idea of finding answers to the questions challenging the nation and community. The questions they ask in response to any given problem we may report are questions like, ‘What can we do about it?'”
In response, Hartig thinks newspapers should ask, “What would it take for us to be more helpful to democracy?” and “What if we were better neighbors?”
The answers to such questions, he says, may result in the kind of stories that have made the front pages of The Virginian-Pilot emphasizing both problems and solutions. Hartig adds that such citizen-reporting may also prove to make good business sense for newspapers as well, mainly because marketing surveys for newspapers repeatedly indicate that people have a “need for some connection to their community.”
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