Local journalism steps up to the challenge of civic coverage

Sixth grade was a tough year growing up in New Jersey. Sports were big, and I was no athlete. My fifth-grade girlfriend, Amy, ran off with a seventh-grade football star. Worst of all, we had a dreadful new class in middle school called “Civics.” Civics was straight-up boring — something about “three branches of government.”

Fast forward a few decades: Amy lives in Paris with a dashing jazz musician, according to her Facebook. I’m still much better at watching sports than playing them. But civics has become a great passion, a true calling.

Let’s take a step back. As journalists and local news organizations, we have recognized over the past few years that we have too often lost touch with the basic civic information needs of our communities. It is difficult for citizens to engage with either news media or government without the fundamental information they need to participate.

It’s hard to fully appreciate the importance of good city government until you’ve lived in a place where it has failed egregiously. Sadly, Philadelphia is suffering multiple challenges that local government seems ill-equipped to help address: Gun violence has spiked. Public schools are too often unsafe and ineffective. As the poorest large American city, Philly is at a crossroad, badly in need of new vision and new leadership.

Thankfully, there is an opportunity for change with citywide elections for mayor and city council in 2023. There is widespread belief that the 2023 election is one of the most consequential in decades. To meet the moment, Philadelphia both needs and deserves the most comprehensive and inclusive local elections news coverage in our history. It’s not just timely, but urgent, that we work with our community to use the power and responsibility of local journalism for civic good.

We were inspired by trailblazers across the country who are leading the way by prioritizing community’s civic information needs. In advance of New York’s 2021 mayoral election, The City created a “Meet Your Mayor” app to help voters choose a candidate. Canopy Atlanta sourced questions for the city’s mayoral candidates from community listening sessions in traditionally underserved neighborhoods. And beyond Election Day, organizations like Outlier Media in Detroit and City Bureau in Chicago make essential information and government meetings more accessible to all.

Earlier this year, The Lenfest Institute spoke with dozens of news media and civic organizations from all major sectors of the city. Voters, community organizers, and news media all told us the same thing: There is an urgent need to focus election coverage on the issues and the civic process — not the candidate horse race. Community engagement and reporting should be based most fundamentally upon listening to the people.

Both news and community organizations felt it vital to work together to engage and educate voters. News media without civic partners are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs; community organizations without amplification in the media are deeply disadvantaged. We can work together and put a substantial focus on fundamental voter education — community convenings, public debates, voter guides, explanatory journalism about why your vote matters, coverage of the issues themselves, reporting about how local government works and for whom. In a phrase, journalism should elevate civics.

Earlier this month, we launched the “Every Voice, Every Vote” project, a coalition of more than 50 media and community organizations covering the 2023 Philadelphia mayoral election. As the name suggests, the project is focused on listening to and engaging the diverse and often underrepresented voices of all Philadelphians where they live — through town hall meetings, church gatherings, meetings in barbershops, talk radio shows, focus groups, public opinion research, social media engagement and many other avenues.

The project is unusual for its dual engagement with both civic organizations and news media enterprises, as well as for the breadth of its public opinion listening activities.

The scope of this initiative is also noteworthy: 52 community and media organizations, voter guides in 13 languages, over 150 community events and meetings planned, major public opinion research of citywide voters, and extensive issues coverage on TV, radio, digital, and print.

It turns out I misjudged civics in sixth grade. Civics isn’t boring at all. These days, civics is full of drama. Civics is life and death. In 2023 and 2024, we hope and expect to see local journalism step up to the challenge of much better civic coverage. Civics is arguably the highest calling of American journalism.

Jim Friedlich is executive director and CEO of The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

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