What Should the Ferguson Observer Be?

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By Scott Simon, special to the Ferguson Observer

It wasn’t hard to leave broadcasting and journalism in 2007, after not having my contract renewed as the program director of a big news-talk FM station in Knoxville, Tennessee, which I coined, “News-talk, heard in six states and two time zones!”

I had become a pariah in the business for stances which are in fruition 16 years later. After some 20 years of experiencing what I called, “group-hug journalism,” I distanced myself from the industry. A lot of the industry and former colleagues and other working journalists blackballed me in a variety of ways.

Frankly, I blackballed quite a few of them. I had a saying for years, “I like ‘em if I can drink with ‘em.” I discovered I no longer wanted to be around them, and socializing with them wasn’t going to solve anything. Too many of them carried their journalism career into the bar or party. I wanted none of that. I preferred to be like the late John Chancellor, who Dan Rather once said, paraphrasing, “He could recite the Treaty of Versailles, or who led the Washington Senators in hitting.”

I wasn’t a big star. I preferred to be a grunt. But I always was going to be a well-informed grunt, because then my readers, listeners and viewers would be well-informed.

In the mid-1990’s, when I was working for Brad Hildebrand at St. Louis News Plus and Computraffic, then later at Channel 30, my vision of what I was doing and the effect it had on an audience enlightened and changed me forever. I read an article by the late Cole Campbell, then editor of the Virginia-Pilot, about a practice he was infusing into his newsroom: public journalism.

The reaction? David Ryfe perfectly told the story in March, 2007, writing for the Poynter Institute, a journalism think-tank, after Campbell was killed in a Nevada traffic accident.

“What made Cole so radical? Lots of things, but if we had to condense it into a statement, it would
be this: Cole believed that journalists had to let the public into the newsroom. He thought that if reporters didn’t find a way to engage their audiences in different ways, they risked becoming obsolete. It was as simple, and as complicated, as that.

The idea provoked great uproar in the industry. His critics worried at the loss of autonomy and detachment such an idea implied. Reporters were, after all, professionals. They didn’t need their audience, or Cole Campbell for that matter, telling them their business. They knew what news was and what the public needed.”

Shortly thereafter, Eric Mink announced he was leaving his long-time job as the media critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to take the same position with the New York Daily News. Since I had been the media critic for the Suburban Journals in the late 1980’s, I felt I was a natural to work in that position.

Not a chance. I was invited to interview by editors Dick Weiss and Ellen Futterman, who headed the Everyday section where the media column was published. I liked Dick and Ellen, and they liked me, personally. When it came to the journalism business though, I felt like they were looking at me as if I had dog poop on my shoes as walked off the elevator on the 5th floor of the Post-Dispatch building at 900 N. Tucker.

I didn’t get the job. They promoted Gail Pennington to the position, and she held it for about 20 years before retiring. Eric Mink had clout. She had none of the clout or expertise. But she fit into what the heads of journalism liked at the time. They liked the group-huggers such as Pennington, who talked a good game, but didn’t deliver the goods, mainly, exclusive news with impact. They didn’t like what I had presented bringing to the column based on my experience in the business outside of newspapers, only to enhance the great job and position Mink had established with his work.

That dog poop? It hit the fan a couple of years later. William Woo was forced out as editor of the Post-Dispatch (and he found out while he was on vacation in Europe). Who replaced him? Cole Campbell.

By that time, I had moved to Kansas City to become a political reporter and anchor at NewsRadio KMBZ, working for a guy, Dale Forbis, who embraced public journalism, by telling us he wanted one “MOTS” story per week. The acronym stands for Man-On-The-Street. If used today, it probably would be called POTS, or Person-On-The-Street. Mainly, it’s a simple job, a reporter stands on the streets and asks random people an innocuous question such as, “Do you put ketchup on your ice cream?” Ok, ok, I’m being silly. I get that way when I think about the hilarity of my broadcast and journalism career. We asked serious questions doing MOTS. Today, I’d probably ask, “What item aren’t you buying today as usual, because of inflation.”

Remember the above paragraph. It will come into reference later in this article.

Well, the stink of dog poop blew from St. Louis to Kansas City after the hiring of Campbell. He was as detested by his staff to be the paper’s editor as Cardinals players were in 1978 with Vern Rapp as manager. They despised him for the reason Ryfe wrote above. The Post-Dispatch staff, under protection of their union, the Newspaper Guild, were vocal about their distrust. No one was going to tell the staff of an industry-iconic publisher like Pulitzer, how to present the news.

It was a tumultuous 4 years, culminating with Campbell’s firing. The staff? Its distrust was vocalized by Harry Levins, who was the paper’s senior writer until he retired in 2007. He also had the snooty title of writer’s coach.

“His departure, “Fit into the category of things you pray for and thought would never happen,” Levins told the Poynter Institute.

The paper’s staff obviously didn’t pray hard enough for divine journalism guidance. The paper was sold 5 years later by Pulitzer to today’s owner, Lee Enterprises.

Cole Campbell had the last laugh. At the time, he was the head of the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada-Reno. What Campbell had been preaching was the proverbial chickens coming home to roost. Public journalism, in the form of digital journalism in the early years of the Internet, had begun to greatly erode the paper’s paid circulation.

And in 2023, the Post-Dispatch is nearly obsolete. Fewer than 8 people work on the desk at night before the paper is printed. Today’s staff is 80 percent smaller than it was when Lee took it over in 2005. Think of it – 4 of 5 positions disappeared in less than 2 decades.

So now that we’re finished with the journalism lesson of the day (keep studying, there will be a test!) and an up-to-date chronology, I address the position of the Ferguson Observer.

I read it from my home in Phoenix, which makes me laugh when I think of people who criticized me for commenting on an article in a town I don’t live. As if the nay-sayers hold the Holy Bible Of Today’s Reading Rules, telling me, “Don’t live here? Don’t read here.”

So much for the critic’s version of a free press. Their free press has boundaries.

But to their credit, small as it should be, public journalism is about boundaries. Cole Campbell taught that the public needed to be brought across the boundaries of newsrooms in order to engage people to read and participate.

The boundary is also geographical, and the Ferguson Observer is a perfect example of how it should operate, and why it should. The Post-Dispatch, television stations, and radio stations of which I worked and competed, were part of mass media. That’s a term everyone’s heard, but many never paid attention to the definition. It was one point sending a message to the masses. Pretty simple concept, isn’t it?

Today, platforms and publications like the Ferguson Observer, are micro-media, targeting a much small audience, with a geographical target, Sure, it can still be read by the masses worldwide on the Internet. But who in France cares if a road is blocked if there’s a protest and there’s no riot? So, the Observer doesn’t qualify as mass media.

I am the one that came up with the term micro-media. I though of spotlight media, and in a way, that is descriptive. What it publishes could shine the light on audience. But that wouldn’t be a successful public journalism partnership with the residents of Ferguson. You readers help drive the content and impact. You do it when an Observer article is cross-posted on social media. You can comment on those stories. Sure, mass media, especially the newspaper, had letters-to-the-editor. But it wasn’t interactive. I could write the paper, but your ability to comment was extremely limited, and the time process could be lengthy. Today, I can comment on an Observer article from Arizona, and you can interact and comment right away.

That’s emotion, and a successful part of public journalism. Journalism has always been about impact and emotion. Public journalism online can target that like an electric line, because the use of the written word, along with things like video, live comment and contact, and many other components.

That, friends, is called media convergence. It wasn’t a term in journalism use when Cole Campbell created the public journalism practice. The convergence term was created years later, and is now taught in college journalism and broadcast departments. Because I worked for many years in radio, television, and newspaper, I was a convergent journalist before there was such a term, and I was practicing it too, in the infancy of Internet.

Observer publisher and editor Nick Kasoff recently raised a great question on Facebook while referencing an article in the Washington Post about rural America, “Could your writing move us in that direction?”

Immediately after he posted that question, the news emerged from Marion County, Kansas about a police raid on a small newspaper, about information that wasn’t even published in a story. That paper is an old-fashioned printed version of public journalism. There is local backlash (I have a couple of friends who live in that county) and over data that didn’t even make it to print!

If that isn’t public journalism, nothing is. You think it’s a rare occurrence? In 1981, the nearby Alton Telegraph lost a libel lawsuit for things written in a reporter notebook, but which never saw the light of day through a printing press. It’s a landmark case. One of the reporters involved, William Lhotka, became a long-time Post-Dispatch writer.

So, my answer to Nick’s question is this: It’s not about the writing by people that will make the Ferguson Observer have the impact a paper like the Rappahannock News does in the Dana Milbank Washington Post story. It’s about getting engagement, emotion, and participation, that when well-blended, will deliver impact.

It can happen. And in part 2, to come soon, I’ll outline things you who are reading can do in your spare time, to have fun and to inform. That’s the baseline of public journalism, and in my view, the Ferguson Observer is off to a good, albeit small start to something that could be impactful in a positive way for Ferguson.

Scott Simon worked in journalism from 1973-2007 in a variety of capacities, starting in broadcasting and ending in the early days of digital. Winner of numerous state Associated Press, United Press International award in news and sports, Scott also was a 1999 Edward R. Murrow winner for Broadcast Journalism Excellence while working at NewsRadio 980 KMBZ Kansas City. Prior to that, Scott worked as a sportscaster at KMOX, media columnist for the Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis, and was one of the 5 original managers hired in 1994 to build KDNL Channel 30 News from scratch. The result helped lead a team that dethroned KPLR Channel 11 as the nation’s most-watched independent station newscast in February 1995, due in part to Scott’s executive producer work for the month-long series on Missouri’s relatively new unclaimed property department at the Secretary of State’s office. The series ended up returning thousands of dollars of unclaimed property and financial windfalls to hundreds of viewers that month.

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Nick Kasoff
Nick Kasoff, the editor of The Ferguson Observer, is a tax professional, landlord, information systems consultant, Libertarian committeeman, and community activist. A Ferguson resident since 2005, he formed the Observer with the help of a strong crew of fellow volunteers, who shared his belief that a regular record of the events and musings of this community was of great importance.