The tendency of urban news media to focus on short-term problems and breaking events – while giving short shrift to promising long-term innovations and solutions – has been a “serious media failure,” leading urban-issues columnist Neal Peirce told a group of international journalists participating in the East-West Center’s Jefferson Fellowship study tour.
“Newspapers provide lots of urban crime, conflict and corruption stories,” said Peirce, whose syndicated weekly column for the Washington Post Writer’s Group appears in more than 50 newspapers. “But there’s relatively little in newspapers about cities’ reform efforts, their new experiments, their possible new directions. Even where there is some coverage of interesting local efforts, we found little pick up in the media beyond that city except in notable, but rare, exceptions.”
Even worse, he said, is the way journalists often portray trips by mayors and other urban officials to learn from other cities as wasteful junkets. “When a reporter finds a mayor or other officials going along on one of these trips and starts an uproar about a junket and using city funds to learn something else – how misguided; how much productive learning doesn’t happen. The result is that we’re all being cheated.” Peirce said.
Peirce, who is also participating in the Jefferson Fellowship, said the solution is an organized platform for mayors and city officials to search out new innovations, which is why he’s founded the new website citiscope.org.
“The idea we came up with was to commission local reporters to go out and take a careful look at the story about the innovation that’s reported,” he said. “It’s certainly not just blogs, but really quality stories people could rely on.”
So far, Citiscope has featured stories ranging from Chicago’s ambitious new Climate Action Plan to Sao Paolo’s slum reform projects. Peirce said he wants to be publishing two or three stories a week by the time the website moves out of beta testing and into a full production schedule.
Peirce, who has authored several books and major reports on urbanization, says the speed at which the world is moving into cities is one of the most important trends of this century.
“In 1950, there were just 75 cities across the globe with a million or more people. Last year, there were 447 cities with that many people,” he said. “On the planet today, there are a thousand cities with a quarter-million or more people in them. By 2050, that’s expected to be 6.5 billion people living in cities, representing perhaps 70 or 75 percent of the souls on the planet.”
Cities already account for 80 percent of the world’s GDP, consume 60 to 80 percent of the globe’s energy demands and dominate fresh water consumption, Peirce said.
“Cities will be the crucibles that decide the most important issues of our century,” he concluded.
By Adam Aton, Missouri School of Journalism. Aton is interning at the East-West Center in connection with the Center’s upcoming International Media Conference in Seoul, South Korea, June 22-24.