Community Forum Series: The Public Square Story

A main goal of The Relevance Project is to help newspapers become THE Community Forum

This week, I’d like to explain why my deep experience with an initiative called the Public Square makes me a big believer that community engagement is as important as quality journalism in reinvigorating community newspapers.

So much so that if I were to start a news media company today, it would be built on the Community Forum or Public Square foundation.

That platform would include both the news side of the business as well as where the company gets its revenue. Customer service, of course, in embedded in the Community Forum concepts.

Over my 15 years (2005-2019) as the publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia’s state capital, I moderated 78 Public Squares on a variety of topics. Nearly all of them were conducted in our downtown headquarters.

Many were intense conversations. Some were lighthearted and fun. Others framed debates. Several presented new studies and research findings. Still others had no guest speakers — they were all about hearing from the audience, because it was THEIR forum.

This Relevant Point series will tell the Public Square story, revealing its origins, explaining its best practices (and mistakes) as well as sharing its applications to the Community Forum model.

I believe the Public Square made us a better organization. Personally, I know it made me a better publisher. I think it made for a better community.

PART 1: The Idea

The catalysts for the Public Square came from two directions: demonstrating the importance of civil, civic conversations; and confronting a community challenge issued to a perceived insular newspaper.

First, the need for civility.

I learned a lot about civil discourse as a participant in Leadership Metro Richmond. Like many cities, the Richmond region has a non-profit organization that each year orchestrates a group of citizens who spend time together learning more about prevalent community issues, hearing from newsmakers, studying servant leadership, and working in an assigned team to develop a solution to a designated problem.

We also were encouraged to tackle tough issues such as racial disparities, economic inequality and continued patterns of segregation. Anyone of these could be explosive. But embracing a framework of respect, seeking first to understand and building relationships showed that positive results could exist.

And trust.

So, the first seed that a newspaper could lead the way was planted in my LMR experience and all those group discussions.

Now, the challenge.

During my first year as The Times-Dispatch publisher, I participated in the Richmond chamber of commerce’s intercity visit to Louisville. These annual trips expose community leaders to other cities’ successes as well offer a chance to unpack approaches to seizing vital opportunities and crucial improvements, such affordable housing, improved health care, effective public transportation, early childhood education, and major amenities like new ballparks or arenas.

After three days of presentations, bus rides and group meetings, the 2005 trip ended with the dozens of participants reviewing major takeaways and creating an initial list of actions to tackle once back in Richmond.

Somehow the newspaper emerged as an impediment to positive change. We were too negative, always against initiatives and removed from being part of the solution, some of my chamber colleagues volunteered.

I bit my tongue for as long as I could, but eventually a former mayor called me out. OK publisher, what are you going to do about it?

I had heard in my first months as publisher the complaint that the RTD was standoffish and didn’t have much of a presence in community groups like the chamber.

Defense wasn’t the way to go with the visiting Richmonders in Louisville. (I wasn’t up to walking back home!)
I volunteered that I was weighing an initiative where the community could come and discuss issues of importance to the region, state and even the nation — like the issues noted on the flip charts in the room.

In effect, the newspaper would open its doors to the public and create an environment for civil discourse.
“You’ll be invited,” I concluded.

“Good,” shouted one of the complainer. “I’ll be there.”

On the way back to Richmond, I started to draft what was to become the Public Square. I also had to figure how to involve the talented staff at the RTD as I needed their help.

I penciled in a list of topics that would at least attract most of those who attended the Louisville trip.
One stood out because it had been in the news a lot:

A proposed Performing Arts Center and its financing.

The Public Square would debut in September 2005.

It was an unproven concept.

–TAS

Next: A task force, topics, invitations

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