Don't Stop There! Five Adventures in Civic Journalism

The Press & Sun-Bulletin
Facing Our Future: Building on Citizen Ideas

In the garden at Clinton and Front Streets, yellow and lavender viola bloom. Tulips and Johnny-jump-up mingle with black-eyed Susan and irises. In spring, white petals cover the chokeberry; in fall, its leaves go scarlet.

Historic photo of Endicott Johnson
Copyright 1996 Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. Photographer: Beth Kaplan

Historic photo of Endicott Johnson: Surrounded by workers from Endicott Johnson shoes, George F. Johnson sits on a car windshield as he talks with his employees, circa 1935.

If you drive in from the airport, you can't miss it. The intersection is a gateway to the city of Binghamton, New York. At first, the little plot held a pump house that tamed storm water and carried it to the Chenango River.

By 1970, the pump house was obsolete and weeds and crab grass overran the lot. Then, in June 1997, a group of people brought together by the local news media for a public service project called "Facing our Future" decided to clean it up.

They were the Community Beautification and Morale action team, one of 10 "Facing Our Future" action teams. Dozens of volunteers tore away grass, turned earth, planted seeds. The eyesore was transformed.

In many ways, the story of that garden mirrors the story of the Binghamton area.

At first, a robust economy was built on the strength of Endicott Johnson Shoes, a benevolent employer that even built homes for its workers. When Endicott Johnson left the area, IBM was there to fill the void, providing thousands of good-paying, high-tech jobs and a sense of economic security. Other technology firms with fat defense contracts clustered in the area. Lockheed-Martin set up a large branch; Link Flight Simulators were invented there. During the Cold War, Binghamton looked recession-proof.

But by 1990, the Cold War was over and the rules of global competition were changing. The defense industry went into a tailspin and sucked the Binghamton economy down in its wake. The area lost 16,000 jobs. People moved out. Stores closed. Real estate values plummeted. Tax revenues nose-dived. Services declined.

As services declined, the area became less attractive. There were fewer reasons to stay. More people moved out. More stores closed. For much of the decade, Binghamton sat like a weed-choked lot -- idle and without hope.

Then, in 1996, the Press & Sun-Bulletin gathered local news organizations together to work with citizens on solutions to Binghamton's economic troubles. Their effort was called "Facing Our Future."

Community Beautification
Photo courtesy Debra Hogan

Volunteers from the Community Beautification and Morale Team plant the garden at Front and Clinton Streets, a formerly blighted city gateway.

The media solicited reader ideas through a clip-and-send coupon and a television call-in. The media partners ran "solutions" stories that told of local strengths and economic turnarounds elsewhere. They convened a town meeting and then a series of smaller meetings with "action teams" that focused on specific concerns. They presented the team reports to business leaders and the community at large to see which recommendations could be put to work. Then they backed away and let the community go to work.

By early 1998, the Binghamton economy was bouncing back. A thousand new jobs moved in. Lockheed Martin was recruiting engineers again. The local growth rate was the highest of anyplace in New York outside of New York City.

"We weren't just lucky," says Marty Steffens, executive editor of the Press & Sun-Bulletin and the driving force behind "Facing Our Future." Steffens does not claim full credit for the improved economy. But she says the project's contribution cannot be ignored.

"We focused the community on the fact that we had better do something and do something now," says Steffens. "The business people said it was just a normal business cycle but we pushed the idea that we had to act. And now we are ahead of the rest of the state. I don't know that it's the project, but I don't think it's happenstance."


A Textbook Approach

Steffens arrived at the Press & Sun-Bulletin already planning "Facing Our Future." During her job interview, executives of the Gannett-owned paper told her they felt their readers needed a public service project dealing with the economy.

An important part of her credentials was a highly praised civic journalism project she'd led at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, "Kids in Chaos," about children and violence. Every city, of course, is different, and Binghamton presented challenges all its own.

Because of its history of big, generous employers, Binghamton had little legacy of citizen involvement. "When this community needed something," says Steffens, "there was a tendency to turn to IBM or Link or Endicott Johnson before them. They would write a check and the problem was solved. Binghamton had never had to overcome hardship on its own. There was no sense of possibility, that if we get together we can see this through.

Marty Steffens

"Our purpose was to inform them of the problem and the possibilities for solving it themselves."
-- Marty Steffens

"Our purpose was to inform them of the problem and the possibilities for solving it themselves."

There were more than a few people who felt a little threatened by that idea. Established business leaders made it clear they did not believe they needed citizen input. They complained that the newspaper had given scant coverage to their proposed solutions to the city's economic problems and that citizens were unlikely to come up with anything business leaders hadn't already suggested.

Steffens also faced skepticism on her own staff. This was the first civic journalism project the paper had attempted, and many veteran reporters feared the paper was getting too involved in making news instead of covering it.

Jeff Davis, a Press & Sun-Bulletin reporter for 23 years, was the lead writer on the project until he left for a job with a local hospital. "There were definitely people on the staff who felt this kind of project conflicted with an attempt to remain objective and impartial," says Davis. "If we're the host of a town meeting on improving the economy and then the paper writes a story that says the economy is improving, it invites skepticism. It's hard to be part of the story and cover yourself at the same time."

So the stakes were high for Steffens. And her mission was ambitious. She had to design a project that would energize citizens used to being taken care of and -- to overcome doubts and distrust -- that would have a good chance of success in developing ideas to stimulate the economy.

Facing Our Future

Steffens says that, in Dayton, she'd taken advantage of the nearby Kettering Foundation, which explores ways for the news media to help citizens solve community problems through its National Issues Forums. She drew on that experience in designing "Facing Our Future."

The first step was to extend the reach of the project by involving other local media. The Binghamton area's public broadcasters were happy to sign on. Mike Ziegler, president and CEO of WSKG radio and TV, says he believes public broadcasting's mission is to make a difference in the community. "You know that term 'catalyst for civic change' may sound highfalutin," says Ziegler, "but that's what I think it's all about."

Programming Manager Mark Prutisto from the local CBS affiliate WBNG-TV, expresses similar sentiments. He says "Facing Our Future" seemed to offer the chance "to improve the quality of life of the community we're a part of. Everyone in the community realized the timing was right for this to happen." Steffens also recruited the State University of New York, SUNY-Binghamton, to provide a researcher for the project.

"The hardest thing about designing a project is that citizens determine every step of the way where you're going. So you can only plan out in a great framework sort of way."
-- Marty Steffens

Then, Steffens set five benchmarks to guide the project:

  • Informing and listening.
  • Grouping choices and preparing for action.
  • Creating solutions and citizen empowerment.
  • Creating action.
  • Seeking implementation and accountability.

She says she couldn't plan in a much more specific way.

"The hardest thing about designing a project," says Steffens, "is that citizens determine every step of the way where you're going. So you can only plan out in a great framework sort of way. And that's what we did. We planned it out in a framework."

The framework Steffens came up with could serve as a textbook model of a civic journalism project. Here is how it worked:


Informing and Listening

In January 1996, the Press & Sun-Bulletin kicked off the project with a series of stories about Binghamton's prosperous history and the economic changes that had taken place. Part One, on Sunday, included a long sub-head that set up the series:

In the last eight years, we've lost thousands of jobs, seen the price of our homes plummet and said goodbye to friends and neighbors. There's some good news on the horizon but our future is still uncertain. We've got to do something to make this community strong again. We need good jobs and a future for our kids. That's going to take lots of hard work -- and lots of good ideas . . . To change things, we need everyone pulling in the same direction -- white and black, young and old, newcomer and life-long resident.

Our jobs may have left but our dreams didn't. This series launches our yearlong effort to help citizens recapture those dreams. It'll be a long, hard journey. It begins today.

That first three-part series revisited the community's glory days. "We didn't want to be 100 percent negative," says Steffens. "Morale was low enough. We felt we needed to honor the community's history and, using that as a base, to say 'we can be great again.'"

A second three-part series ran in February. This one focused on solutions -- what other communities affected by recession and job loss had done to revitalize their economies. In March, a third series looked at local companies that were surviving, the resources they were using, and ideas they had.

Shawn Lawrence
Copyright 1996 The Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. Photographer: Julia Schmalz

Shawn Lawrence tells a "Facing Our Future" gathering that the Binghamton area needs a plan to bring in high-paying jobs.

Alongside every story, the newspaper ran a clip-and-send survey, soliciting readers' ideas for economic recovery. More than 400 readers responded; many of the responses were printed with the solutions stories.

At the same time, WBNG-TV ran a parallel series of economic-solutions stories in its newscasts and aired a 90-minute call-in show, during which 200 viewers telephoned with opinions and ideas.

"It gave people an opportunity to have a voice where they didn't feel they had a voice," says program director Prutisto. "It was a responsibility on our part to be an outlet for the voice of the community. That's a responsibility all media have, to help them find that voice of where they needed to go."


Grouping Choices and Preparing for Action

Based on the reader surveys and viewer call-ins, the "Facing our Future" partners devised 10 action teams: job training, venture capital, transportation, tourism, government consolidation and tax reduction, lowering energy costs, community beautification and morale, involving youth in the community, needs of seniors and needs of working families.

Steffens recruited several team leaders from a chamber of commerce leadership-training course. She also used money from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism to hire a community coordinator -- Michelle Berry, a recently departed city official with extensive knowledge of government and broad community contacts -- to help find people who could lead discussion in action team meetings.

William Turner, from the leadership course, agreed to lead the team on involving youth. He says it seemed like a good fit with his professional goals as a drug abuse prevention counselor. "A lot of the news media focus on the negative things young people do," says Turner. "This seemed like a way to get them involved in a positive way."

Copyright 1996 Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. Photographer: Chuck Haupt

Facilitator Mary Ann Nixon leads the Developing Tourism and Entertainment Sites Action Team in identifying regional strengths during its first meeting.

Then in April, to generate interest and participation in the action teams, WBNG broadcast a live town meeting. Three hundred people attended, a capacity crowd for the downtown auditorium where it was held. Anyone was allowed to speak and dozens took turns at the microphones, raising their own concerns and suggesting ways the area might improve its situation. The Press & Sun-Bulletin described it in the next day's paper as "the voice of a community that is refusing to surrender."

Judy Whiteman went to the meeting, she says, "because, like a lot of people, I was feeling depressed about the situation with the economy and quality of life here. There was a lack of energy in the community. I have a grown son who lives in New York City and had no intention of coming back, and my daughter was headed on the same track. Because of the way the community was going, I began to question what there was about this community that was of value to preserve." (She ended up leading the Needs of Seniors Team.)

The newspaper's lead writer, Davis, says that, despite some early misgivings, he thought the meeting was one of the best parts of the project. "Everybody got to say what they wanted," he says. "I think it's always good to let people say what they're feeling. It encouraged members of the minority community to come forward and say things that were different from what the white established business community would say."

"After two or three meetings, they realized we were not there to serve special interests and they dropped out. We got down to a core group of about 12 but it was a good group."
-- Mary Ann Nixon

The audience was invited to sign up for action teams on the spot and 140 did so (in addition to 160 who had signed up before the meeting). William Harrison was so enthused he signed up for five action teams but eventually settled on three. "I had just recently moved back to the area and was not working full time and I saw a chance to get involved and do something with my spare time," says Harrison.

The paper also ran a schedule of times and locations for each team meeting so readers who didn't attend the town meeting could still get involved.


Creating Solutions and Citizen Empowerment

The action teams began meeting in May and continued to meet through the summer. Their charge was simply to brainstorm and come up with recommendations for improving Binghamton and its economy.

The paper provided special training for team leaders because, Steffens says, she knew from her experience in Dayton that many participants would arrive with their own agenda to push. There was a danger the meetings could devolve into gripe sessions and the leaders were trained to keep the discussion flowing and focused on solutions.

Copyright 1996 Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. Photographer: Julia Schmalz

The work isn't all serious . . . Facilitator Joan Bandurchin breaks for a lighter moment during the Tourism Team's meeting at Lourdes Hospital.

Mary Anne Nixon was the facilitator for the Tourism action team. She says the training was particularly helpful for her because about 75 very vocal people attended the first meeting but a large number of them were hoping to promote their own businesses as tourist attractions. She says it took a lot of discipline to keep the discussion from getting sidetracked to these individual concerns.

"After two or three meetings," says Nixon, "they realized we were not there to serve special interests and they dropped out. We got down to a core group of about 12 but it was a good group."

Most of the teams followed that pattern -- crowded early meetings that dwindled to a core of heavily involved members.

Berry, the community coordinator, attended more than 100 meetings, bouncing around all 10 action teams. She got to see a lot of different chemistry at work. Some of the groups were quite passionate "A lot of serious debate went on in these groups," says Berry. "They really struggled with these issues."

Berry provided logistical support, such as copying documents, and used her knowledge of local government to guide some groups looking for official action in their recommendations.

Facing Our Future

As action teams met through the summer of 1996, the media partners in "Facing Our Future" ran stories exploring the recommendations the action teams were discussing. The Press & Sun-Bulletin ran a series on the Transportation Team's idea that State Highway 17 should become part of the interstate system -- an idea that turned into action.

For instance, the Community Beautification and Morale Team felt that some local eyesores and hang-outs could be improved through more diligent code enforcement but few members knew how to go about filing a complaint and following through. In the midst of their summer meetings, Berry helped the team hold a session on the issue with local officials.

(Coincidentally, team member Janet Thomas had been having problems with a neighboring property that was deteriorating. After the code enforcement session, Thomas says, she realized help was available. "I went right home and started making calls," she says. "The city was able to bring a truck out and clean the property up.")

The Consolidating Government and Reducing Taxes Team tackled one of the most ambitious tasks. Team leader Jack Ellis says many of the members had budget or accounting experience. They met with officials of the area's various governments and school districts, analyzed their budgets, and did side-by-side comparisons on a spread sheet to show where services were being duplicated and could be done more efficiently to save tax dollars.

"This is the first time that was ever done," says Ellis, "and you really can't understand it until you've seen it done that way."

Through the summer, the Press & Sun-Bulletin and WBNG were covering meetings to keep the spotlight on the project. Public radio was interviewing team leaders on its call-in talk shows.

Neither the paper nor the TV station was particularly pleased with the stories they ran during this phase of the project. TV felt the meetings lacked an all-important visual element. Steffens says many of the paper's stories became like any meeting story -- not terribly engaging.


Creating Action

In September, the action teams handed in their recommendations -- dozens from each of the 10 teams. The Press & Sun-Bulletin reprinted each team's recommendations in a series that ran for 10 days. WBNG aired a two-week series of special reports on the teams' recommendations in its nightly newscasts.

Then in October, the paper had all the groups meet together at SUNY to synthesize their recommendations into a final report. Even though the meeting was meant to cull the recommendations into a manageable form, the final report filled 500 pages with more than 100 ideas and suggestions.

Some were simple; some were ambitious. The Tourism Team urged better maps of Binghamton that would clearly show locations of tourist attractions, noting that advertisements on the map could pay for the costs. The Consolidating Government and Reducing Taxes Team wanted to consolidate the 911 system throughout Broome County -- a process that takes legislative action by a number of different governments.

Sometimes, team suggestions overlapped. The Involving Youth in the Community Team suggested that teenagers be recruited for a public service project. Community Beautification and Morale recommended neighborhood clean-ups and Tourism lobbied for improvements along Front Street -- a city gateway. They all fit together in the final phase of Steffens' framework.


Seeking Implementation and Accountability

This was the critical step in which the media partners would hand the project over to the community; would see if it had "legs" -- the staying power to continue on its own. It was a moment Steffens had been planning for a year.

"One of the dangers of creating a citizens movement sponsored by the news media was that we would just replace the 'parents' these people had had in the past with big companies," says Steffens. "That's a big responsibility and we didn't want that.

"We wanted to ease it into the community's control. I wasn't sure how that was going to happen but I set it up in a way that would allow it to happen. All along I left it in the community's hands and encouraged people to meet on their own and continue to meet on their own."

"One of the dangers of creating a citizens movement sponsored by the news media was that we would just replace the 'parents' these people had had in the past with big companies. That's a big responsibility and we didn't want that."
-- Marty Steffens

For some of the teams, the experience and the encouragement were all they needed. The Community Beautification and Morale Team was the first to accept the challenge. Team leader Debra Hogan launched a community clean-up day. She teamed up with Involving Youth in the Community to recruit teenagers, along with other volunteers, to do the work. Taking the suggestion of the Tourism Team, they picked up trash along Front Street. Then, to make a lasting impact, Hogan and her team planted the garden at Front and Clinton Streets.

It was actually Hogan's idea to rename the project, "Building our Future," when the media partners stepped back -- to show that the project had gone from the idea stage to the implementation stage.

Steffens knew, however, that most of the groups would need more. So she did two things: She helped get a grant from the Pew Partnership for Civic Change to make Berry the community coordinator for "Building Our Future" so the teams would continue to have logistical support. And she asked the Chamber of Commerce to meet with the teams to see if there were ideas the Chamber could implement.

Since the project was focused on the economy, the Chamber seemed a logical enough partner. But it also presented a risk.

It was the established leaders at the Chamber, after all, who'd been in charge while Binghamton's economy plunged. And they'd been the project's severest critics, dismissive of the grass-roots flavor that had been the project's biggest strength.

However, they had the resources to act on the teams' ideas and the timing seemed right to build an alliance.

Younger business leaders were taking over. David Birchenough, at the time a Chase Bank president, was leading a movement to consolidate a number of business groups under the umbrella of The New Broome (County) Chamber.

Birchenough shared the conventional businessman's view that "Facing Our Future" was redundant and amateurish, but he appreciated the spirit it brought to the community. "It woke people up," says Birchenough, now an insurance company executive. "We were viewed as the good ol' boy business community, not as part of them. For some reason, there's a lack of trust between business and the grass roots. But in reality, it was a grass-roots effort that helped get us off the dime a little as a community."

The New Broome Chamber ended up as the home, or the final resting place, for many of the team's recommendations. Three of the groups -- Transportation, Venture Capital, and Job Training and Recruiting -- disbanded after their recommendations were wholly subsumed by the Chamber's new strategic plan. These included establishing a venture capital fund, holding a job fair, improving the airport, and designating state highway 17 an interstate highway.

A fourth team, Tourism, lives on as the Tourism Council, housed at the Chamber. Creating the Council had been the action team's chief recommendation. They'd envisioned it as an independent body and, because of the historic ill will between the community and the Chamber, they were not entirely pleased to become an arm of the Chamber. But Joan Bandurchin -- now the council's vice-chairman -- says "we just didn't have the facilities or the wherewithal to do it on our own. We have no funds. We don't have enough volunteers. So we thought, 'Well, if they buy into what we recommended and do it, this will be okay.' The question is will they and how will they? That remains to be seen but they've been very responsive so far."

The other teams preferred to continue on their own, with Berry as their coordinator. Their accomplishments are many:

  • The Needs of Seniors Team found that many older residents don't know what services are available for them. The team now has a weekly column in the Press & Sun-Bulletin to educate seniors on the issues facing them.
  • Involving Youth in the Community has produced a half-hour pilot of a TV talk show for teens. The pilot has aired on public television and WBNG and the team is seeking funds to make it a regular series. They're also raising money for a teen recreational center.
  • Through the effort of the Consolidating Government and Reducing Taxes Team, Broome County has connected its ambulance service to a central 911 system. One municipality's police and fire are on the same system and the team is prepared to keep pushing, municipality by municipality, until all the area's emergency services are centralized.
  • Community Beautification and Morale won an award from the National Town Watch Association for its "National Night Out" activities, which included a parade and a cook-out with music, dancing and free food.

The list goes on and, since many of the teams are still active, more plans are in the works. But perhaps the project's most important achievement is the sense it has created among participants that they can make a difference.

Whiteman, who had wondered what was worth saving in Binghamton when she attended the town meeting in April 1996, says the project "did raise the morale of the community because they were taking some responsibility for what was going on in the community. It was an empowering experience."

Tourism Team

Many of the Tourism Team recommendations have become reality and its work is continuing. A technology theme park, first discussed during team meetings in August 1996, is undergoing a feasibility study with hopes that ground can be broken in the year 2000.

Turner was about to leave Binghamton when he became team leader for Involving Youth in the Community in 1996 but he's decided to stay. "I really, truly want to make a difference here," he says. "I want to make some changes."

Hogan says "It was one of the first projects that looked to the community to come up with solutions. We were not looking at the leaders. People had a stake in what happened and that's what's so exciting."

In addition, the community is picking up on the newspaper's action-team model and is using it for other community projects. For instance, a coalition of business, government, non-profit agencies and low-income families is studying how to implement welfare reform in Binghamton. They've instituted six task forces -- much like Steffens' action teams -- to make recommendations in the areas of transportation, health care, employment and training, case management, safety nets and child care. United Way spokesman Bruce Dudley says "Facing Our Future" was "certainly one of the inspirations for the idea of involving the complete community with teams of people to study all aspects of the issue."

The feeling of empowerment is not unanimous. Some participants say they expected more to come out of the project. William Harrison is disappointed that no one has embraced the ideas of the team he led, Reducing Energy Costs. The team proposed an energy center to lead conservation efforts and called for reform of construction codes to promote energy efficiency. "We spent a lot of our time, our energy, our emotions on coming up with these recommendations. We're still working on even having them addressed, even if it's 'these are lousy.' We've heard little either way."

That sort of disillusionment is a clear risk of a project such as "Facing Our Future." But the media partners were clear the project was not intended to solve Binghamton's problems but to energize citizens and get them working on solving the problems.

On those terms, Binghamton Mayor Richard Bucci is among those who judge the project a success. The participants, says Bucci, "have added to the overall tenor of discussion of the issues. Many have become activists. That's a good thing. 'Facing Our Future' has formally ended but teams still meet and individuals are still involved. That's a good indication that it's been successful.

Richard Gregory
Copyright 1996 Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. Photographer: Laura Camden

Richard Gregory proposes setting up a clearinghouse for people to find investment opportunities.

"Sometimes things get started and then a couple years down the road, there's no sign it ever took place. That's not the case here. There are a lot of actions and organizations that had their birth with 'Facing Our Future' and are still viable."

Bucci might have been talking about the garden at Front and Clinton Streets. Janet Thomas, master gardener for the Community Beautification and Morale Team, recalls going to check on the garden one day and getting a little discouraged. One of the trees was dried out, weeds were coming up through the mulch. "Some kids were strolling by," Thomas remembers. "They stopped and asked me some questions about the garden and I told them about it and, before you know it, they're helping me weed.

"It just shows you. You can be depressed and be in a depressing area and you can make changes. Is this little garden going to change the world or turn around the economy? Heavens no. But it is going to perk things up. This does have a ripple effect."

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