Bronstein Launches New 'Journalism of Action' After Big Cuts

By: Joe Strupp With its massive newsroom staff cuts essentially complete, the San Francisco Chronicle is embarking on a new approach to coverage that Editor Phil Bronstein likens to that practiced by William Randolph Hearst.

"Journalism of Action," the phrase being bandied about in the Chronicle newsroom since last Thursday, will take the paper?s regular coverage of an event, topic, or issue and expand it to include ways that readers and others can seek changes and improvements.

"How does the story affect people? What can they do about it?" Bronstein told E&P in explaining the approach. "There has been a bit of a tradition of saying, 'Here is the information -- good night, see you tomorrow.' We will deal more with the solutions, get involved and tell people what they can do.?

Bronstein, who recently finished overseeing the staff cuts that ended with the departure of about 90 people from his 400-person newsroom, met on Thursday with those who will remain and directed them to take the new approach into daily news coverage. "It is more about solutions, helping them understand what they can do about things," he said. "Yes, there are murders in Bayview, and Muni is broken down. But what can you do about it?"

The editor compared the approach to the paper?s popular ChronicleWatch feature, which focuses on specific government-related problems such as potholes, broken stoplights, and the like, and follows the progress of efforts to fix them.

"I?m not saying in every circumstance, but to look at stories from that aspect, you can direct people to learn what they can do to help,? Bronstein said. He cited the death of a hiker in June at Half Dome in Yosemite National Park as an example of a story that could be expanded.

While the Chronicle reported on the statistics of deaths related to the attraction -- and the opinions of safety experts -- it may in the future take such a story further. "the comments online you had some of the solutions," he said of the reader-reaction posts. "You have the use of technology and even an editorial crusade to get things done.?

Steve Proctor, deputy managing editor/news, said the paper took such an approach earlier this year when there was a trash company lockout in Oakland, which resulted in replacement workers being brought in by Waste Management Inc. During the 20-day lockout, he said the Chronicle covered the story, but also sought to focus on specific neighborhoods and how the lockout was affecting them.

"We identified places that were not being picked up, put pictures in the paper and followed them," he said."We had a garbage watch everyday, picked a place and tried to see if we could get Waste Management to respond." He said the paper eventually found that the poorest neighborhoods were among the most neglected.

Proctor also pointed to a column by C.W. Nevius on homelessness in Golden Gate Park. He said the column was prompted after an outcry related to a coyote attack on a dog in the park. Nevius? column stressed that homelessness in the park was much more severe and common than coyote attacks. "It drew hundreds and hundreds of comments and made it an ongoing story," Proctor said.

Bronstein said other approaches might include bringing an issue or problem to a public official, such as a law enforcement leader or mayor and pinning them down for answers and a plan of action.

"You have all of these multimedia aspects to it," he said, noting the use of Web, print and video or audio. "I am not saying it will always work, but it is something you can try."

Noting William Randolph Hearst?s historic use of his papers, including Bronstein?s former employer, the San Francisco Examiner, to bring issues to light, he said the Chronicle could do so today. "Every newspaper is talking about watchdog journalism," he added. "That is different from advocacy, which is telling people what to think."

He said the paper would also focus the effort on specific areas, but said they had not been chosen yet. He noted, however, they might include "green living," real estate, politics, and technology. "Beats will be realigned based on that," he said. "There will probably be some physical shifts within the building."

He said the paper may even create a "central nervous system," where representatives from departments such as news, photography, features, online and others will be based to react immediately on all fronts to some stories. "The basic departments who are in on the discussion from the get-go."

Adds Proctor, "when you cut down as much as we have cut down, every paper has cut down, you have to look at what you have to do fabulous work."


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