Interview with Chronicle’s Bronstein

For my Sat. Rocky column, I interviewed San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein. To me, what he’s trying to do in San Francisco makes a lot of sense. Here’s a transcript of part of my interview with him.

JS: I’ve read that you want to find ways for readers to act instead of just saying things are bad. What does this mean?

PB: It can mean a variety of things, but we snagged this mission from the original William Randolph Hearst, who despite an interesting and colorful reputation, was for a long time a champion of the working man and women. His newspapers took on trusts. They did a lot of things. And he’s not always remembered for that.

And he had a thing called, journalism of action. And of course his action was probably far grander than anything we have in mind. As someone said about it, and I don’t think he said this, but newspapers at the time injected themselves routinely and conspicuously to correct the ills of public life.

Now we have a slightly different view. The model we have is called Chronicle Watch. Chronicle Watch we started some years ago. It’s on the front of the local Bay Area section every day. And it’s not a column, and it’s not a consumer advocate, or a consumer hotline or advocacy. It basically solicits from readers problems from readers that should be getting fixed primarily by public officials. So it’s not Chronicle Watch to End the War in Iraq. But it’s Chronicle Watch about potholes, it’s about the electrical wiring in public school classrooms that doesn’t work, it’s about bridges that are broken and unsafe. So they [readers] send us a note about it, and we check it out. And we run a thumbnail of the problem and a brief description. And we run a photo of the public official whose job it is to fix it, and we run all their contact information. And we run it every day until they fix it. And this has been going for five or six years. It’s success rate is in the 90th percentile. So it’s a pass through. It’s not, we’ll go out an fix it for you. No question, there’s a lot of leverage in putting a photo in the paper each day next to a problem their paid to fix and they’re not fixing. But basically it really is people feeling like even if it’s not their street that they can do something about it. We are providing them the information and the avenue to do that. And obviously some encouragement to do that if you got that information.

And so this, on a small level, is what we have with this journalism of action.

You provide people with all the information they need to do something. No just here, ok are the facts. Or here’s a problem, and that’s it. That’s our job. We’ve provided the information. See ya. Good night. Have a good day. Good luck. Instead, you know we will offer them opportunities to do something about it. Whether it’s something that’s been standard in newspapers for a long time…-help boxes or which congressperson to call, that sort of thing.

We’re doing that, but more than that, it’s in the stories you choose.

So for instance, the mayor of San Francisco says he’s going to improve the homelessness problem. It’s a huge issue in the last several elections. We go out to Golden Gate Park, actually on another story, and our columnist-goes out there…-he was actually looking for coyotes because there was a coyote problem out there…-and instead he finds giant encampments of homeless people, and once more, you know, there are homeless people who have all sorts of problems and issues. There are hypodermic needles all over the place. One kid, in fact, gets stuck in the butt sliding down a public park slide. And he writes about it and provides people the opportunity, you know, if you want to complain about this. We make the maximum use of all the digital possibilities. There stories are on our website and you get comments, and you take from the comments, we reverse publish some of the better comments. In those comments people can have ideas for solutions. We provide the opportunity for those people to express themselves, for other people to then participate if they want to. Immediately the mayor sent people out there to try to deal with this problem. And we kept sending Chuck out there and other reporters out there and sweep the place, map it for the website, where the homeless encampments in Golden Gate park are, where they are moving, are they doing anything that’s valuable or helpful with the folks they are moving. What about social services?

Another example. They had a trash strike in Oakland. One would think that’s pretty limited to Oakland. If you are not or are not having your trash picked up in Oakland. But, you know, the trash company said despite the strike, everyone’s trash is being picked up by management and replacement workers. We went out as reporters to see if this was true. Not only was it not true, but the places they were picking up happened to be the wealthy neighborhoods and the not picking up happened to be the nonwealthy neighborhoods. So we covered that like it was the giant oil spill we just had, and we had a trash watch, and we put the picture of the guy who’s the head of the trash company and his contact information as part of the Oakland trash strike package. It’s hard to say whether we had any role whatsoever in the resolution of the Oakland trash strike, but no question people got to express themselves and they did, including a lot of people who didn’t live in Oakland but were plugged into the story in a more profound way than if you were just reading it in passing.

These are the kinds of things where you actually give information on about how people can participate in a resolution if they want to. The Bay Area has the highest volunteer rate of, I think, anywhere in the country. So when we had the oil spill, the head of the Coast Guard came to San Francisco, and we had an ed board meeting with him, and he said, “I was frankly kind of shocked, but I guess I shouldn’t have been at the number of people who showed up to help.” And there were a thousand people who showed up the first day saying what can we do. And a lot of them were turned away, so we tackled that, too. What can you do and why were people being turned away, and how can that be fixed?

You just leverage people’s desire to participate in their own lives in the paper and online.

And the third example I’ll give you is a guy fell off Half Dome. Half Dome is a very popular climbing place. Most people didn’t realize, the last part of this climb is a vertical climb, and there are two cables that go up, and there’s a line, it’s like a line for a popular movie, around the block. So this guy falls off. And we have an outdoors writer, Tom Stienstra, very well known, writes a lot of books about the outdoors, he writes about it. And he got hundreds and hundreds of comments on his blog-among the comments were people who claimed to be eye witnesses to this guy falling off. So what you do is go and verify, if you can, that they were there, that they saw this-and in the same set of comments are a set of descriptions of why this is a dangerous situation and how it can be fixed-You turn this into, what can you do and how can the public participate in the solution.

That’s the kind of thing, and as I say, it varies on how you do it and what the tools are. You can go from a help box to the whole way the story is reported or follow-up story is reported-.

People can do a lot more, obviously, than a lot of people think they can.

JS: On the online comments, do you actually solicit solutions in the comments, like solution comments, or do they just naturally come as part of the comments on the story?

PB: So far, they just naturally come but I think that’s probably a great idea. I don’t know what form that would take but I do think that we ought to consider, and we’ve talked about, how to specifically solicit solutions.

And you know, this is controversial. People, you know, have accused us of advocacy journalism. That’s not what we do.

We sort of snagged the William Randolph Hearst line because it’s not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one that journalism has gotten away from in the last number of decades-

The idea is not to direct people to do anything. We’re not telling people what to do. We’re saying, if you want to do something about this, here are all the places you can go, here’s what you can do. We don’t say, do this. More like, if you want to do something, here are some options-.

We started about two and a half months ago. Doing this systematically is new-

I just heard from too many people, you know, readers or former readers, who said, if you want to tell me what’s wrong, I can turn on the TV 24 hours a day. I can find out what’s wrong. I just want to find out what to do about it.





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