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Neil Heinen's Column: Common Ground

Published On: Jul 20 2012 11:18:35 AM CDT
Updated On: Jul 20 2012 11:25:37 AM CDT
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By: Neil Heinen

It’s never easy to write about one’s profession. It’s hard to avoid sounding self-serving. There’s a risk of too much “inside baseball” talk. But I’m going to count on enough shared interest and belief in the vital importance of journalism in our democratic society to think that perhaps you’ll join me in an effort to make it, and the media that deliver it, better.

This is not completely new ground. A few years ago, editor Brennan Nardi put a lot of time and effort into a multimedia project called All Together Now, which explored both the issue of access to health care and the question of whether media outlets could work together to make a difference and in the process make themselves relevant again. It was a good effort. But not much has really changed. And the need grows.

Make no mistake: Everything I’m writing about here is a direct response to the dramatic and likely irreversible decline in the quantity and quality of news coverage in the country, including right here in Madison. I understand consumer demand, economics and technology. But it’s not good and I don’t like it. A lot of smart people (like Brennan) are doing a lot of interesting things to try to right the ship. But, especially on the local level, some very important issues and underserved groups are simply not getting the coverage they, and we, deserve.

There may yet be ways for traditional media outlets to improve their performance in this area. “Hyper-local” coverage of news on the neighborhood level is all the rage these days. Newspapers and television stations and websites are all experimenting with ways to cover local issues. But virtually every discussion of the mission of traditional media ends up with a dispiriting claim of new revenue models that are either insufficient or yet to be discovered, and in the meantime news goes unreported and citizens go unserved.

The beacon in all this fog is community journalism, and one of the best examples in the country is the Madison Commons project located right here in, yes, Madison. Let’s start with what the Madison Commons is not. It is not a “citizen” journalism site consisting of self-appointed citizen reporters blogging about issues they feel passionately about. The Commons is a partnership between the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the community that uses the high standards and professional development and education prowess of the UW to train and support—and edit—citizen journalists.

For now the emphasis is on three issue areas, food, education and transportation. But think about those three issues for a minute, how important they are in your life and in your neighborhood, and you’ll get an inkling of the potential of the Commons.

This is all the brainchild of Lew Friedland, one of the most respected thinkers on media and democracy in the country. Friedland is a professor of both journalism and sociology. He started the Commons more than six years ago and it is his decision to institutionalize the project in the J-school that gives it its foundation. He’s got some talented colleagues working with him and some skilled students.

But the second pillar of support, and the one that will really make the Commons an invaluable community asset if it can be accomplished, is community partnership. Madison has to own the Commons. Community Shares is a partner. So is WISC-TV and the Morgridge Center for Public Service. There’s a community advisory board coming together. I’m heading up that effort. But there’s room for more.

The Madison Commons needs financial support, as well as public awareness. And what it really needs is for you to use it. Visit madisoncommons.org. Contact Lew or his team about ways you can participate and help. Talk it up. This is the antidote to the decline of local media. This is where Madison meets, at the Madison Commons.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

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