PUBLIC SQUARE STORY, Part II: Basic Ingredients, Eagerness To Engage

In its simple form, the Public Square is a topic, an invitation, a staged room, and an audience.
The hard work occurs before the live program begins.

Much of the Public Square’s success was because of its planning team.

One of my best moves was to install a guiding coalition of ready-to-roll colleagues at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Its charter was to shape the civil discourse initiative into an event that had a beginning (planning, an announcement and enterprise reporting), a middle (welcoming attendees and the actual discussion), and an end (coverage of what happened).

The Public Square Team was among a dozen or so task forces I set in motion when I became publisher in 2005 to help assess the organization.

Interestingly, the Public Square was the one and only team that was active during each of my 15 years at the helm of the capital-city newspaper. The others finished their assignment. The Public Square team kept going and going, finding new ways to improve the initiative, despite staff departures and arrivals.

The team picked the topic, set the date and time, secured and prepared the guests speakers, coordinated advanced coverage, planned the logistics of the event (room setup, computer technology and microphones, broadcasting equipment, security and parking, water, etc.), and promoted invitations to RTD readers and our community at large.

All of the daily newspaper’s departments, except Circulation, the Business Office, and the production plant, were represented on the team. The co-chairs were the executive editor, the Sunday Commentary editor and the marketing director.

The Newsroom’s contributions were crucial. In most cases, a major Sunday enterprise story explored the topic to be discussed at the Public Square. Readers who came to the Public Square usually had a good understanding of the designated issue. The Newsroom’s advanced coverage allowed us to focus on hearing what readers thought about the topic and whether they had solutions to share.

Our coverage also motivated citizens to want to hear what others thought about the issues. Informed listening and speaking were on equal footing at the Public Square.

The big room we used in the downtown building had about 195 seats. We learned early on that standing crowd is not a very comfortable or orderly audience. So, we used the number of moveable chairs as the capacity. (We had another room with a screen for a spillover crowd as needed.)

Started in September 2005, the Public Square was intended to be an experiment in civil discourse.
We had modest expectations.

All we wanted to do was open our doors to the public and be Relevant in the examination of issues that could spur or shape decisions that improve the quality of life in the Richmond Region and Virginia.

The selected topics were linked to three questions:

  • Can we increase awareness?
  • Can we add to understanding?
  • Can we help create a commitment to solutions?

It took us eight years to hit the No. 50 Public Square, with three or four programs in both the spring and fall. We took summer and winter off.

To be in position to complete as many open forums as there are states was a humbling achievement.
It meant we never lacked an audience, and we were willing to stretch a news organization’s capabilities so we can pause and listen to our loyal readers.

The Public Square worked for three main reasons.

One, readers value an invited opportunity to discuss news issues of importance to their communities.
Two, the moderated format requires respect, so comments deepen understanding of various perspectives rather than invite resentment with polluted points. (More on the moderator in Part III.)

Three, all comments were on the record, so they could be shared in various forms, further extending the suggestions, analysis and knowledge. (The program was summarized in a next-day news story, captured in a video available in its entirety at Richmond.com and excerpted in Sunday Commentary section.)

Our Newsroom and Advertising teams pushed into social media in big ways, but the Public Square has only dabbled there.

In the digital age, the civic discussion’s distinction was the in-person participation. Yes, showing up was required.

But the Square had never been about needing to have capacity crowds.

Rather, it was about shepherding quality exchanges.

We were reminded about that standard with Public Square No. 48, which explored the Virginia controversy over gifts to the then-governor and his family.

Ten minutes before the scheduled start, Times-Dispatch support staff outnumbered the public.

There was a fleeting thought that maybe we should cancel — for, gulp, lack of interest.

But that wouldn’t be fair to those who took the time to come downtown on our invitation.

Besides, once the conversation started, we focused on who joined us, not on who didn’t come.

As it turned out, No. 48 was one of our best discussions.

The small size may have had something to do with the result, but we also got lucky because the best commentators just happened to be everyone who attended.

From the moderator’s perspective, that’s what made the Public Square most interesting.

You never knew what topic would attract what audience, nor could you anticipate the many different, twisting paths the conversations would travel.

Through it all, we were never disappointed.

Well, only when the microphones pooped out.

Next: Playing off the news, formats, moderating.

—TAS

Editor’s note: A portion of Part II was borrowed from my RTD commentary ahead of the 50th Public Square.

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