Newsroom activist Wanda Ravernell had bigger plans. After three years editing the Chronicle's relentlessly whitebread local news coverage, the young black copy editor envisioned an ambitious effort to reach out to the newspaper's minority readers. The program would include multicultural education for high school students, neighborhood input from community members and even video.
But Chronicle brass, pleading poverty, have drastically scaled back Ravernell's vision. The need for such a plan spotlights the weaknesses in local Chronicle coverage, reveals the ambivalent response of the daily's management to new ideas, and stirs the debate over the trend toward what is coming to be known as “civic” or “public” journalism, in which the community is polled for its ideas on newspaper coverage.
What remains of Ravernell's scheme is the “Chronicle Advisory Board,” which was launched with an announcement in the Chron's February 23 business pages. The ad solicited 300-word essays from readers who reflect “the diversity of the Bay Area”; from these essayists the Chronicle will pick 24 to appoint to the no-pay panel. Board members will attend a Chronicle news-planning meeting, accompany a reporter covering a story and write a commentary that will appear in the paper's pages.
Ravernell was inspired to build a bridge between the newsroom and the community by Bay Area high school students who organized a 1993 walkout to protest the lack of ethnic studies.
“I thought all this had been resolved 20 years ago,” Ravernell says. “It was sad to see the erosion of multicultural teaching.” She modeled her newspaper proposal on the Seattle experiment in which a daily newspaper encouraged students by publishing a 98-page magazine of reprints on minority achievements. In homage to the young people whose protest inspired her, Ravernell also planned to recruit high school students to add editorial comment to the magazine. Video clips from KRON-TV's archives were sought to augment the magazine project, and she devised an “editorial fellows” concept — which has transmuted into the advisory board.
Ravernell received enthusiastic support from newsroom colleagues and found strong backing from the Newspaper Guild. Beginning last October, she promoted her plan in a series of memos to management. The newspaper strike slowed things down, but Chronicle chieftains finally approved her initiative — with the important proviso that she raise the estimated $50,000 to $75,000 the magazine and the video would cost.
A major setback came when the Pew Charitable Trust declined Ravernell's grant request in late January, just days after the Chronicle prematurely announced the project in a press release. The paper's topsiders ruled that only the low-rent advisory board would get the green light.
Executive Editor Matthew F. Wilson insists the executive suite remains “foursquare” behind Ravernell, noting the establishment of the Advisory Board and its assurances that the Chronicle will cover such broad financial incidentals as postage.
The suggestion that a call for advisors might be an admission of gaps in Chronicle coverage catches Wilson by surprise. “It's always good to have readers tell us what we think — I mean what they think,” he says.
Other newsmen are ambivalent about this experiment in civic journalism.
“The Chronicle pays Matt Wilson big bucks to be editor, and he can't turn it over to a committee,” says Charles Cooper, executive editor of the Alameda Newspaper Group. “On the other hand, you have to listen to your readers. Here, we consider all of our readers to be on our advisory board.”
A recent New York Times article about civic and public journalism, published the day the Chronicle announced its Advisory Board, reported that more than a dozen news organizations are trying the approach. But one Wisconsin editor groused, “My idea of public journalism is finding out what's going on and raising hell about it.”
San Francisco Newspaper Guild president Bill Wallace, a veteran Chronicle investigative reporter, says the paper knows its community coverage is wanting. “People in the front office are very cognizant that this is an isolated and out-of-touch institution,” he says, adding that Ravernell's project deserves a fair shot. “I was surprised the notification [in the Chronicle] didn't mention whose idea it was,” he says. “Was it just a churlish slight, or are they playing it down? We'll see.”
Wallace welcomes the idea of advisors accompanying him on stories. “It'll open their eyes to how slapdash and chancy reporting can be,” he says, noting that tag-alongs have gone out on stories with him before. “They tend to think it's going to be Clark and Lois and I hate to disillusion them but [colleague] Susan Sword and I don't work that way.”
The fundamental problem facing the Chronicle's local coverage — like that of most newspapers — is the conflict between the activists' cry for diversity and the roar of advertisers who demand Pacific Heights demographics, believes Ben Bagdikian, emeritus chairman of UC Berkeley's journalism school. “Most metropolitan papers pay the most attention to the middle and upper classes,” he notes. “They won't say so, but they like readers who buy wine by the case. Alternative newspapers came along and filled the gap, and that forced the dailies to pay attention.”
Ravernell concurs: “We were tending to print the same voices, the same people writing letters to the editor, the same bylines on op-ed pieces,” she says. “I wanted to see a wider range of input, and I thought we should try to introduce people to how reporters conduct business on the job.”
Bagdikian traces the recent push for civic journalism to the advent of focus groups in the television industry. “That was mostly PR,” he says. “But if the group is truly representative — not an easy goal to achieve — and if the program is taken seriously, the Chronicle could definitely benefit.”
Wanda Ravernell hopes so. She's already received about 100 applications for the advisory board. Despite the funding shortfall and the diminution of her project, she remains upbeat. “My dream did not entirely come true yet,” she says. “But I plan to keep trying.