From Acel Moore, a life's lesson in how to build real community engagement
For a lot of people in the journalism business, the notion of "engaging the community" is a new idea.
After all, for all those years before social media, Web comments and email, the public’s access to newsrooms and the people who work in them was pretty much limited to phone calls (sometimes returned) or letters to the editor (sometimes published).
Now newsrooms are out to prove how accessible they are. They’ve even appointed managers with titles that call for them to connect with the public, using all manner of tools, from technology to in-person events to “pop-up newsrooms.”
From his new desk in heaven, Acel Moore might be having a bit of a chuckle at this whole idea. Not that he would quarrel with the need to know your community. No way.
Moore built a career on his relationship with the people of Philadelphia. For 43 years as a reporter, columnist and editor at the Inquirer, he took their calls, investigated their complaints and told their stories — stories that others would never have found newsworthy.
And he built that relationship when the most sophisticated technology available to him was the telephone.
Moore died on Friday and left behind in Philadelphia thousands of people who trusted him with their stories.
What a wonderful legacy: to be trusted with someone’s story. Moore earned it.
Read the tributes written and broadcast in the last few days. In the Inquirer’s story announcing Moore's death, former Inquirer reporter and editor Arlene Notoro Morgan said of her friend:
I do not know of any reporter, then or now, who was as connected to the people in those [rowhouse] neighborhoods as Acel," said Morgan, who was raised near Acel in South Philadelphia. "He could get anyone to talk to him, because he believed in shoe-leather reporting that made him someone people trusted, from Mayor Frank Rizzo to the corner grocer.
There’s that word again: trusted.
In that same Inquirer story, investigative reporter Wendell Rawls recalled the work that he and Moore did in exposing the violent abuses — including covered-up murders — inside the Pennsylvania state hospital system. "The Farview Findings” won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for Special Local Reporting.
Moore had the original source.
"Acel's strength was that he could find people and get them to talk to him," Rawls said. "He knew Philadelphia like it was his backyard. Some of these guys were extraordinarily suspicious, but Acel could get them to open up and could really communicate with their families."
But the tributes only affirm what Moore's readers knew firsthand. For the fruits of his labors in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia appeared regularly in the pages of the paper. Year after year, in column after column, Moore introduced the people of Philadelphia to each other, knowing that most of them, because of race and class and calcified ignorance, would never have met any other way. But Moore believed they needed to meet. Because he believed journalism could raise people up, bring people together, help us be better.
He also believed that before that could happen, one story had to be told much more completely and accurately than it had ever been told. The story of white Philadelphia was well-documented.
Not so the story of the city’s African-Americans.
In preparation for a seminar about 10 years ago, I asked a number of people why they had decided to go into journalism. And Moore, the onetime Inquirer newsroom clerk who became the paper's fourth African-American reporter, said this:
“I do what I do for two reasons.
“First, to tell the true story of black people in Philadelphia and across America, because 40 years ago, that was not done.
“And second, to make a difference, to erase stereotypes that go beyond race, and to have an impact on the world because of what I write.”
Read his columns. You will read the true story of black people in Philadelphia and across America. In an interview with American Journalism Review in 2011, Inquirer Editorial Page editor Harold Jackson said Moore was "the voice of the people" at the newspaper.
"He was also one who profiled people who otherwise would be forgotten in the city, men and women who lived, who were of modest means, who had jobs that might not be very flashy but helped the city run. People who were educators, social workers, police officers ― profiling those people in his columns and giving the city an opportunity to know more about the folks who ordinarily wouldn't be in the news."
This was Moore's mission: to portray the full range of African-American lives and not just those who had achieved something great, or excelled on the athletic field, or committed a crime.
And so he introduced his readers to Winifred Mitchell:
I asked a woman I know what she was feeling about the death of Ronald Reagan. Her name is Winifred Mitchell. She expressed a profound feeling shared by many, including me, amid all the tributes and eulogies. On talk show after talk show, she'd watched former Reagan cabinet members, administration officials, and friends speak glowingly of Reagan as a great American.
And she said: "I must have been living in a different America than those men."
Mitchell is also a great American. She is a black, middle-class, educated 74-year-old widow of a World War II veteran. She is a retired teacher and an active churchgoer who tutors children. And she's conservative about many things; she's no radical ideologue.
She felt left out of Reagan's America. And I know how she feels…
He introduced readers to Shively D. Willingham II, whom Moore described as “the most senior principal in the Philadelphia School System — and the angriest.”
Willingham, a tall, graying man with closely cropped hair, spoke to me yesterday morning, his comments made in soft but resolute tones.
"You are the first reporter I have talked to about this. I will never forget what I saw when I ran out of the building and was told that one of our kids was shot," said Willingham, sighing in disgust.
"I saw the boy lying face down on the ground in front of the school, his book bag on his back. His legs were on the sidewalk, and his upper body was in the schoolyard near the gate.
"There was a big hole on the side of his face and head. … There was little blood. He lay motionless. I wanted to touch him and comfort him," said Willingham, bowing his head as he described the scene.
Willingham said he is angry, not a shouting rage but a strong, quiet, deep-seated intensity.
"I am, first, angry at the hoodlums who did this. These young men, hoodlums and thugs, who show no fear or respect for the law, or for the life of anybody in their community.
"I am angry at the 39th Police District for not answering my pleas to routinely patrol the streets around the school when it is open.
"I am angry at the community for not demanding from their elected officials that they pay attention to their concerns and priorities."
Moore ended his column with:
Willingham said it's a safe bet that those involved in Faheem's shooting were themselves once innocent 10-year-olds at Peirce. The answer to ending the violence lies in reaching young men before that innocence is gone.
And Moore introduced Philadelphia to Eula Cousins:
Eula Cousins is a dynamic, well-organized, gregarious person whose charm, grace and infectious smile can disarm even the most cynical heart. She organized her own birthday party a week ago, inviting 30 guests for brunch at her condo in Andorra, after which she led a discussion on the war in Iraq.
Just before the discussion began the waiters placed a small slice of cake with one lit candle at her setting. It was a symbolic gesture; Eula Cousins is 101.
I've asked you here not to talk about my past century. I did that at my last birthday party," Mrs. Cousins said in a clear, precise voice. "I want to talk about the present and the future, whatever time I have left.
Moore ended the column with this paragraph:
In many ways, Eula Cousins' story is the story of black Philadelphia during a time when the white media and others who recorded the city's social history ignored the accomplishments of African Americans. I am happy to tell her story now.
For 43 years, Moore achieved so much — and in so many ways. He mentored hundreds of aspiring journalists and established a high school minority journalism program to give young people a head-start. He co-founded the National Association of Black Journalists and was a fighter for diversifying newsroom staffs. And there was that Pulitzer Prize for exposing horrors others had refused to believe possible.
But perhaps most importantly, he told the true story of black people in Philadelphia and across America. He made a difference, erased stereotypes that go beyond race, and had an impact on the world because of what he wrote.
And he did it by earning the trust of the people in his community, people he truly loved.
And so, may journalists seeking to engage their communities take a lesson from Moore. Earning trust is about a lot more than a sophisticated social media strategy.
It’s about listening to everyone.
And acting in good faith.
Well done, Acel Moore.