Reassessing Cole Campbell’s Vision of Journalism’s Future

In his time as a public journalist during the 1990s, Cole
Campbell was known as an “out-of-the-box” and innovative thinker. Truth be told, he was a bit of a
radical. Anyone who would bring a coffin
to a news meeting (to bury old ideas), or (gasp!) invite scholars to
brainstorming sessions in the newsroom, is a bit of a risk-taker. 

The news industry could use some radical thinking these
days, which is one reason why Cole, who
died in Reno last January
(where he was Dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada), will be
sorely missed.

Many of his best ideas are expressed at OurTahoe.org, a Web site of the Graduate Program in Interactive
Environmental Journalism
at the Reynolds
School, which launched March 1, 2007.

What made Cole so radical?
Lots of things, but if we had to condense it into a statement, it would
be this: Cole believed that journalists had to let the public into
the newsroom. He thought that if reporters didn’t find a way to engage
their audiences in different ways, they risked becoming obsolete. It was as simple, and as complicated, as
that.

The idea provoked great uproar in the industry. His critics worried at the loss of autonomy
and detachment such an idea implied.
Reporters were, after all, professionals. They didn’t need their audience, or Cole
Campbell for that matter, telling them their business. They knew what news was and what the public
needed.

And his reporters often rankled at the experimentation, and
resulting turmoil, he brought to newsrooms.
His experiments at The
Virginian-Pilot

brought conflict, but also a recognized level of innovation that persists at
the paper today. His second major
editorship, however, at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,
did not achieve the same result.

After
Cole abruptly resigned from the Post-Dispatch
in April 2000, it is not too polite to say that he was shunted to the
sidelines of journalism, with a hearty good riddance from most
journalists. As Harry Levins, a Post reporter, put it at the time, his
departure “fit into
the category of things you pray for and thought would never happen.”

My, how the times have changed! Less than a decade later, Cole’s great idea
seems downright prescient. In the 1990s,
journalists deeply resisted the notion of engaging their audiences in new
ways. Today, the “people formerly known
as the audience,” to borrow a phrase from Dan Gillmor, often are the journalists. Moreover, in a strategy Jay
Rosen has dubbed “rollback,”
elites who once relied on journalists to
transmit messages to citizens now feel no compunction about ignoring them. To the people they cover, journalists
increasingly seem like just another interest group.

In this climate, Cole seems less like a threat to journalism
than one of its more ardent, some might even say naive, defenders. On his faculty page at UNR, Cole put “Journalism Matters” in big, bold type to express what he believed in. Yes, he wished to invent new forms of
journalism. He was even willing to let
citizens make a contribution to the process.
But he didn’t want to get rid of journalism altogether. He believed deeply that journalism has an
important role in public life.
Journalism matters.

The question, of course, is how and why it matters.

On these questions, Cole didn’t settle for conventional
answers. For him, it wasn’t enough for
journalists to focus on factual accuracy to the exclusion of meaning and
judgment. Cole liked to remind people
that the threat of a catastrophic hurricane in New Orleans was well known in the years
before Hurricane Katrina. No less than
three news organizations, The
Times-Picayune
, National Public Radio on “All
Things Considered,”
and The New York
Times
, had done extensive stories on the subject. Well before the disaster, the community had
the facts.

What it lacked was judgment — and the will to act. “This kind of judgment,” Cole wrote just
before he died, “requires a different kind of journalism.”

During the public journalism wars of the 1990s, Cole often
called this new journalism a “craft” to distinguish it from the
professional model of the past. In the
last two years, he had taken to calling it a “social practice.”

This change in language is important. A “craft” may be something less than a formal
profession, but it still implies a divide between journalists and the
communities they serve, between those who are experienced in the craft and
those who are not. The term “social
practice” erases the distinction entirely.

In the last two years, Cole realized that the practice of
journalism is the practice of
community. Communities exist because
people recognize that they have common problems and that it is easier to solve
these problems together than apart.
Journalism is the practice of communities working on these
problems.

The purpose of journalism, in other words, is, to quote Cole
once again, “to generate public knowledge produced by the public use of reason
and experience.”

This language — social practice, public knowledge, public
judgment — implies a new vision of journalism.

In this vision, the goal of journalism is not an informed
citizenry. Rather, it is a citizenry
capable of judging public issues and acting on those judgments. Becoming informed is merely a weigh station
on the road to judgment.

In this vision, investigations that hold elites accountable
for their actions are important and necessary.
But they are not the be-all and end-all of journalism. “If [journalists] offer prophesies that no
one believes (the proof of belief being the willingness to act),” then, Cole
writes, “they are nothing more than modern-day Cassandras, peddling prophesies
with no social utility.”

In this vision, journalists must work with citizens, and,
when necessary, hold them to the same standards of accountability as elites.

In the vision, the master metaphor for journalism is “facilitation” rather than “mediation.”
Journalists facilitate conversations between the public and their
representatives rather than mediate a transfer of information.

Finally, this vision predicts that any successful community
will invent a journalism that helps it achieve the purpose of solving its
shared problems. Any community that
fails to accomplish this task will simply fail, and any journalism unable to
help communities achieve it will fail as well.

What does this journalism look like in practice? The honest answer is that Cole didn’t
know. As an editor, he had tried some
experiments. A few worked; many
didn’t.

But he had gleaned some clues. At the very least, the new journalism would require reporters to move away from emphasizing
the strategies and motivations of elites to focus on the critical decisions and issues facing
communities. It would require many different people
working together within a community to identify alternatives and consequences. It would move away from supporting the
interest group pluralism that defines much of political life today and forging
new avenues for alternative points of view to be recognized, considered and
acted upon.

Here at UNR, he led us to reinvent our graduate program as a “skunks-work” laboratory devoted to fleshing out these and other ideas. As we write, our students are busily (they
would say frantically) engaged in finishing their professional projects. Each project is an experiment in harnessing
new Web-based technologies to Cole’s vision for the future of journalism.

We do not know which, if any, of these initial experiments
will work. Students in subsequent
classes will refine those that look promising, jettison the rest, and explore
new terrain.

But we are confident of the vision guiding their work. Cole left us abruptly, but not
empty-handed. Journalism, he argued, is
the practice of community. That is why
it matters.


Donica Mensing is director of the Graduate Program in Interactive Environmental Journalism.
David Ryfe is senior research scholar and associate professor in the Reynolds School of Journalism.

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