PUBLIC SQUARE STORY, Part III: Welcomes, Formats, One Moderator

Third in a series.

Over its 15-year run, the Public Square used a basic formula that proved dependable.
Duration was 90 minutes.

Like an interesting story, the Public Square had an intriguing beginning, an active middle often with an unexpected moment or two, and a sharp ending with thanks.

Our main goal was to prove that Richmond, VA, could be a model of civil, civic discourse, a direct opposite to the shouting matches featured on cable news programs and the impersonal nature of the-public-can-now-talk segments of government meetings.

All comments made at the Public Square were on the record. We broadcasted live on the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s web site and reported them in the newspaper.

Depending on the topic, we used different formats to organize the discussions.

Some controversial issues, for example, lended themselves to a debate, where invited speakers representing two different sides competed to win over the audience with the best arguments. For other news issues, we opened up the microphones to audience members and they were the main event.

A moderator was in charge.

Moderation ensured we could capture as many comments as possible in the 90 minutes because ultimately the Public Square was about hearing from readers.

The Public Square was THEIR forum.

Most of the Public Squares were on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. We tried to stay away from Mondays and Fridays, though on the later day we did have a couple of special programs tied to the Richmond Folk Festival’s three-day event in October.

Snow in the forecast was a downer.

One more standard: We provided chilled bottles of water. Civil discourse, we learned, makes you thirsty.

On the 90 minutes:

We correctly figured that was enough time to dig deeper into an issue, record at least a couple dozen comments from readers, and then finish without an exhausted audience. Besides, we were a civil conversation, not a symposium.

We used two time slots.

The evening program started at 7 and finished at 8:30 so attendees could eat dinner beforehand. When we added a daytime Public Square, it was a noon start so workers could use their lunch hour.

When the Square ended, it was not unusual for some audience members to stay another 30 minutes or so to meet the guest speakers or continue the discussions with other attendees.

The combatants in the gun control debate, for example, went longer than that, after discovering they could indeed stay in the room with each for a long period. They kept it civil, nonetheless. We were pleasantly surprised.

On the welcoming:

The Public Square team welcomed visitors at two admission tables marked by large Times-Dispatch banners.

We made sure these welcomes were warm, appreciative and accommodating. Many of the participants were longtime readers who deserved special treatment for joining us.

Attendees checked in, received a name tag and then were shown the way to our auditorium where you could take any seat in the house.

(The vast majority of the Public Squares were conducted in our downtown headquarters, which featured a large room on the first floor accessible from the front doors or from our attached parking deck. We had a few programs at our production plant in an adjoining county and a handful at guest locations such as a community college and Richmond Raceway.)

In Part II, I mentioned how important it was to include our journalists in the planning. So, equally vital was our previews.

We invited the public in print, online and in emails. Some of us also made phone calls.

Our promotions used a distinct template that featured the Public Square logo of four squares with different colors.

The RTD Newsroom and Editorial staff published special coverage about the designated topic. Often, the enterprise packages appeared on the Sunday before the Public Square and included interviews or additional details about our guest speakers.

We knew informed Richmonders were RTD readers. That strength certainly extended to the ramp-up to the Public Square, which also was reported on the next day and wrapped up in the Sunday Commentary section with an edited transcript that included head shots of each speaker.

Many readers told me they read every word.

On formats:

The fundamental Public Square was a selected topic and all 90 minutes devoted to hearing from the audience. This cemented the program as of the people, for the people, by the newspaper. Over time, we experimented with different formats.

Controversial topics such as whether Virginia should allow offshore oil/gas drilling were better as an animated debate among subject-matter experts followed by questions from the audience.

We used panel discussions as long as they had distinction. For example, after the national headlines and intense protests over Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO, we invited the police chiefs from the four largest municipalities in the Richmond Region. It was the first time these police leaders had appeared together in public.

As the Public Square reputation grew, organizations offered to reveal the findings of major research projects, trend reports and economic studies in exclusive presentations.

For example, a fair housing advocacy group explained how segregation of neighborhoods still existed, and a major think tank delivered its final report on the critical trends the region should embrace in the decade ahead.

When using these formats, we organized the Public Square into thirds: 30 minutes for presentations; 30 minutes for questions from the moderator; and 30 minutes for the audience. It was the moderator’s option to yield more time to the audience.

That 30-30-30 format also could work with this approach: 30 minutes for understanding the problem; 30 minutes for a discussion about solutions; and 30 for next steps the region should take.

Once we established the town hall, we pushed to include RTD journalists. It was important to showcase these talented reporters and editors, if anything to demonstrate their impressive skills at interviewing and questioning.

One of the best was the Public Square that featured the first public appearance of a man who was falsely imprisoned in Virginia for more than 30 years for a crime it later turned out he didn’t commit. Our reporter, who was widely credited with calling attention to this injustice, conducted the interview in front of a packed room. It was raw, powerful and poignant.

We devoted another Public Square to an RTD reporter who had written a book about Haiti, a topic we probably would have missed had it not been for our journalist’s side project.

Finally, I did one-on-one interviews with newsmakers, including governors and mayors. This required a peculiar skill as we tried not to fall off our tall, bar-like chairs that were a bit wobbly. Whatever it takes.

On moderating:

I moderated all 78 RTD Public Squares. It was an honor.

As the moderator, there were two types of Public Squares.

The ones that started at 7 p.m. and moved so fast that when I first checked my watch it was already 8:10. Phew. And then there were the tough-sledding discussions that also started at 7 and I felt we getting close to end but the clock showed it was only 7:30. Sigh.

Moderating a public discussion is not for the meek. It requires stamina, quick thinking and a little luck.

I had an advantage when the Public Square started, however. I had been a newsroom trainer for many years and was used to organizing workshops while facilitating group discussions.

I needed all of that experience and more.

You only had to watch the first 25 Public Squares to know the moderator was learning on the job. But learn, I did.

As moderator, the task was to:

Keep the discussions moving.

Encourage comments focused on delivering one main point with clarity.

Limit comments to about 3 minutes, especially with large crowds eager to talk. ( I discovered that if I walked closer to the speaker when his or her time was up it was a signal to wrap up. Most took the suggestion.)

Try to coach reader questions so there’s interaction between the stage and audience. Monologues deflate.

Demand respect and civility. Show it in return.

Use humor to defuse some tense situations but don’t make fun when people want to make a profound point. Humor also can backfire.

Look to involve as many in the audience as possible but politely deter anyone trying to dominate the mic or insisting on second or third points.

Move around the room.

Remember that not everyone is comfortable speaking in public. But nearly everyone has something of value to say. (Some of the best comments came from painful introverts who contributed impressive arguments.)

Be wary of people who rise holding a 10-page script, waving a huge book or wearing a provocative button.

A rather amazing aspect of the Public Square was the fact we only asked two people to leave for bad behavior.

One guy threatened one of my staffers who had mic duty, and the other disruptive actor would not sit down while taking phone video of the program but blocking people seated behind him.

Only two ejections in 78 programs is a tribute to Richmond, where we showed you could have public discourse that was informative, full of different views, diverse, and, most importantly, respectful.

Believe it.


Next: Setting up the room, sound and transcripts

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