How one Florida paper did Civic Journalism. Any implications for the future?

I always knew the power of the pen was mightier than the sword. It's one of the reasons I chose journalism as a profession. But this realization became more evident the more I covered the city hall beat at the Bradenton Herald. In an effort to break away from the mundane government story, the assistant city editors on up to the publisher challenged Nick Mason, the county commission reporter, and I to go beyond the surface and dig deeper. What is the meaning behind all of this? How will citizens be affected? Depth was what my superiors wanted.

My dealings with civic journalism began in April 1996. The project was called "Decision Downtown." While routinely checking the press box in the city clerk's secretary's office at city hall, I ran across an item about the Bradenton City Council's plan to build a fire, police and city hall near the Manatee River. The council approved the specifications and gave interested contractors a choice of five city-owned properties to build the facilities. A month later the city received proposals from six contractors, three of them local, to build the facility. In July six contractors presented their plans to the city council, and a week later the council selected Pittsburgh-based National Development Corp. and Fawley-Bryant Architects of Bradenton to design and build the city facilities.

Two weeks later the council held a public hearing in which the majority of attendees opposed the plans to build a $7 million City Centre on auditorium property. Many residents opposed the project because they felt it was not the best use of the property. Some local business owners, whose businesses are in walking distance of the proposed complex, feared the increased noise from fire trucks and police cars would deter customers from their establishments and ruin the ambiance of that part of downtown Bradenton. The council heard their concerns. But it was to no avail. A week later the council in a 4-1 vote approved the project. I wrote the initial story (1).

Wayne Poston, the Herald's executive editor, was very concerned about the council's decision. Why was such an important decision made during the summer when many residents are gone? Bradenton has a high percentage of winter residents. If a decision had to be made, then why couldn't the city council have held the public hearing during the evening instead of its regular scheduled 8:30 a.m. time? These were some of Poston's questions.

The Herald surveyed 402 residents about the city council's decision. Thirty-one percent of respondents disagreed with the council's decision, 28 percent of the people agreed and 42 percent did not have an opinion. The poll was alarming to Poston and the rest of the newsroom because many of the residents who attended the meeting expressed disapproval of the plan. Poston said it was not a matter of taking sides, but making sure city government officials were acting in the best interest of the public. And by the way they handled the City Centre issue, Poston said it seemed like the city wanted very little resistance in building the complex.

"We got people engaged to the point that the power structure felt engaged to call a meeting," Poston said. "The people took over from there."

Even when I was off duty, I would run into people who had something to say about the City Centre. City officials in Palmetto would often make comments to me about the council's decision. Many of their comments were objective. (I guess they were afraid I would put what they said in the paper, even after they told me it was off the record.) I could be in the mall looking for a new tennis racket and someone would approach me and ask, "So Kevin, what do you think about Bill Evers and his arrogant attitude on building the City Centre on auditorium property?" Personally I could have cared less, but if I had to take a side it was with the residents. My response, though, was always objective. "Well, I don't know, it seems like a very heated issue."

This type of reporting required reporters to think outside of the traditional roles of reporting. For example, Pam Radkte Russell, now an assistant city editor at the Herald, said she raised her hands during meetings to ask questions. If city officials said something incorrect, Russell said she would correct them.

"As reporters we became a part of the process, not just covering the process," Russell said. "I personally became more involved than normal in the process, giving more information, raising my hand at certain meetings to correct misinformation, than I normally would as a reporter."

For the Herald's efforts, the Bradenton Herald, along with the Peoria Journal Star and the New York Democrat and Chronicle shared the 1997 $25,000 James K. Batten Award for Excellence in Civic Journalism.

The Herald will continue to do this type of reporting, but what influences if any would cyberspace have had on the project? Although online publications are more interactive than the "paper" paper, many people still do not have access to this technology, especially in a city like Bradenton where the blue-collar base is fairly large. Most residents in Bradenton and Manatee County do not have a computer in their home. If the newspaper only published its contents through its online product, most city residents would have been uninformed about the council's decision and the Herald's efforts. In conclusion, civic journalism thrives from its "paper" product and reporters getting out in the community and forcing citizens and officials to take a hard look at the issues. Online publications add an extra punch and provide another avenue for people to get involved. But as of now, it cannot be the backbone for the success of civic journalism.