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Reality TV meets the newsroom

Trailblazer Steve Smith brings newspaper transparency to a whole new level
By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  June 21, 2006

MEDIA MAVERICK: Steve Smith, editor of the Spokesman-Review, in Washington, and one of the most vocal, fearless, and controverisal experimenters.
Even in an era of buzzwords such as media “transparency” and “interactive dialogue” (between news consumers and news producers), what’s happening at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, is pretty strange stuff.

Beginning on June 13, the paper began webcasting its two daily news meetings to the public, letting viewers with computers sit in on the key decision-making staff meetings — once considered secret and sacrosanct — at a daily with a full-time staff of almost 130 people.

The first thing worth noting about the webcast is that, thus far, interest has been rather limited, with only about 50 to 60 folks logging on for the more interesting morning meeting. Second, if the paper’s about to break a big scoop, it won’t discuss that story in these suddenly public forums. And third, after catching a glimpse of one such webcast, it’s quite possible that Ambien has met its match in the insomnia-curing business.

But what should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the news business is the fact that the architect of the webcast concept is Steve Smith, 56, one of journalism’s most vocal, fearless, and controversial thinkers and experimenters. Having been editor of the Spokesman-Review since July 2002, Smith’s new webcast is just part of what he calls his “transparent newsroom” initiative, which also includes three dozen blogs, visitors invited to sit in on editorial meetings (even before the webcast), and a unique willingness on the part of the paper’s editors to explain themselves and their decisions to the public.

“It’s a compilation of ideas and practices that I’ve been playing around with at one level or another since I’ve been at the Wichita Eagle,” where he worked from 1988 to 1993 under reform-minded editor Buzz Merritt, says Smith. (At that paper, editors actually went to malls to engage readers in conversations about how and what the Eagle was doing.)

Itinerant reacher
Smith, who also edited the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and the Gazette in Colorado Springs before coming to the Spokesman-Review, has bounced around quite a bit. But he has never been a quiet backbencher willing to play by the rules. He was a fiery advocate for the civic-journalism movement — an often misunderstood and occasionally misguided effort to create more vigorous dialogue between journalists and the public — that emerged in the early ’90s and never really caught on in the mainstream media. (After seeing Smith speak at a civic-journalism conference a decade ago, I was so impressed by his vision and energy that I thought about changing jobs to go to work for him on the spot.)  

While in Colorado Springs, Smith published stories that not only contained the reporter’s byline, but also the names of the headline writer and the story editor. He brought community groups into the newsroom to analyze the paper’s performance. He also stressed the idea of avoiding the traditional “conflict frame” of journalism and encouraged stories that covered events and issues from the differing perspectives of the various stakeholders.

In short, Smith has spent the better part of the past 20 years making a name for himself as a firebrand and an outside-the-box thinker in a generally status-quo business where change is usually incremental and painstaking.

“I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian,” he says with a serious hint of understatement.

Others put it more bluntly.

“In this profession, if you’re not in the club, whew!”, says Jan Schaffer, executive director of the University of Maryland’s J-Lab: the Institute for Interactive Journalism. “For him to find a comfort level on the periphery of the club to me connotes a certain amount of bravery.… He’s far more independent.”

“I have known Steve Smith for about 15 years,” adds Jay Rosen, an New York University journalism professor and the author of the well-known PressThink blog. “The great thing about him is that he simply doesn’t care what conventional opinion among his fellow editors is, and doesn’t think as they do. He’s always willing to defy newsroom culture too. (And that’s a mean beast at times.)”

Smith still calls himself a “civic journalist.” But that cause — to which he so feverishly attached himself — turned out be a noble marketing failure. Its adherents saw civic journalism largely as an extension of basic “shoe leather” reporting, one that got reporters closer to grassroots-community concerns rather than having them depend on professional spokesmen and officialdom for story ideas and sources. But for many editors and journalists, the intensity of the adherents’ reform-minded fervor and the emphasis on solutions and problem-solving was off-putting, leaving former New York Times executive editor Max Frankel to famously complain that “the ardent civic journalists … want to tell it and fix it all at once.”

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  Topics: Media -- Dont Quote Me , Steve Smith , Ambien , Jay Rosen ,  More more >
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