Monday, October 31, 2011

Events as Journalism

Monday, October 31, 2011

It’s a chilly, fall Thursday night, yet more than 80 people have packed an auditorium in the Experimental Station’s location at 61st and Blackstone on Chicago’s south side. They’re here to hear author Ralph Richard Banks discuss his provocative new book “Is Marriage for White People? How the African American marriage decline affects everyone.” Banks is an informed and engaging speaker, and his earnest style hide his controversial thesis that black women could do themselves – and black marriage rates - a favor by seeking partners of other races.

It’s a well-moderated, informative discussion on a timely and important topic. But it raises a question outside of the realm of Banks’ book: Are events journalism? Though the question harkens back to the early ‘90s, when Civic Journalism was the rage, it seems much more at home in today’s world when journalists are eager to engage audiences and are more comfortable with breaking taboos and barriers.
In an essay from July of this year on the Nieman Journalism Lab web site, Andrew Phelps describes how Evan Smith at the Texas Tribune has brought back ‘blogs, multimedia, troves of government data, and something old-fashioned for an online news startup: face-to-face conversations.’
Since its founding in 2009, Phelps explains, the Tribune has hosted more than 60 events. “Events are journalism – events are content,’ Smith told Nieman. “And in this new world, content comes to you and you create it in many forms.” 

Plus, in this shoestring budget era, they can become an important source of revenue.
“Sometimes people want to learn about things by reading about them,’ says Jan Schaffer, executive director of American University’s J-LAB. “ And sometimes people want to learn about things by watching something or listening to someone, without a reporter intervening. The act of meeting and learning from one another seems to me to be an easy fit with journalism.  The act of interviewing a newsmaker in person in front of an audience is also an act of journalism.”
The interview with Banks explores the ‘precipitous’ decline in marriage amongst middle class African Americans because no one, he says, had focused much attention on the topic. He explores the cultural and economic reasons that marriage has declined amongst African Americans, why black women feel compelled to marry within their race, the power dynamic that takes place when members of a larger group marry partners in a demographic that is in short supply, and some of the reasons that have kept black women from seeking out partners of other races. The audience is eager to jump in with questions and comments.
As host Jamie Kalven said in introductory remarks: “Tonight is one in a series of occasional public conversations meant to escape convention. To create a space where it’s possible to explore challenges and concepts. You’re not an audience, you’re participants in a conversation.”

--Mark Hallett, senior program officer

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