Journalism’s literal public forum

I’m fascinated that newsrooms used to provide a literal public forum for people. Starting in 1840, the Houston Star invited residents to grab “a good glass, an interesting paper and a pleasant cigar” in its lobby. People could gather there and talk freely. It was a good place to spark conversation or debate. These types of places continued for more than 100 years.

I’m even more interested in how ending something like this could have changed journalism. Yes, people still can write to the newspaper or make a phone call. But what if one is afraid to write a piece that could be published? I’m surprised at how anxious potential contributors to the Missourian’s From Readers section can be about their writing, and whether it’s “good enough.” What if someone wants a guaranteed insightful conversation to help get a better understanding of a current event? What if someone wants to contribute to the conversation in a non-written way?

Yes, there are comment sections, but they can only be so helpful when Internet trolls take over the conversation — or when no one else pays attention to the issue. Same goes for conversing in comments on social media. I think other social media engagement —including Twitter chats such as #WJchat, and Facebook and LinkedIn groups — are overall more successful in facilitating thoughtful conversation, but I wonder if we could do more.

I’m not saying we need to bring back the cigars and chardonnay, but we could be a bit more inviting. I think this is something the Missourian does well with its open news meetings, but every other newsroom I’ve been in requires key card access to get past the front door.

Media outlets could hold more community events to facilitate conversation and celebrate coverage. For example, the Missourian holds Readers Board meetings for a select group to discuss our coverage, The Maneater facilitates debates for student government elections and The Guardian has started hosting events for its premium subscribers. These opportunities allow for people to learn, ask questions and start conversation with community members.

I think the Center for Investigative Reporting is doing a wonderful job of exploring alternate ways to create a public forum. In doing so, the center’s thought a lot about the best audience for each piece and how best to get information to them. For example, they’ve held spoken word events for high school students, held plays for farmers and even created coloring books for kids. Although the content isn’t in a traditional format, the content is journalistic, and these different avenues for content have allowed them to bring people together and spark conversation in a way that doesn’t involve staring at a screen.

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