MADISON — The story of We the People/Wisconsin has always revolved around the people.
From the first televised town hall meeting on March 27, 1992, citizens have stood at the center of the journalism produced by the news media partners that make up the We the People/Wisconsin project.
Thousands of citizens have attended the project’s town hall meetings and broadcasts over the past 15 years, and at least 1.5 million more have watched on television, listened on radio or read stories, columns or editorials in newspapers and online publications.
Citizens who attended one of We the People/Wisconsin’s nearly 50 broadcast events or a similar number of off-camera meetings have been asked to do one thing: Set their own agenda through a facilitated, democratic process.
Those agendas are not driven by the candidates or interest groups or even the news organizations that make up the We the People/Wisconsin project. They’re priority lists that make sense to the citizens who develop them. As we near an important presidential primary election in Wisconsin, it’s a history worth recalling.
Broadcast formats and topics have varied greatly throughout the history of the project, but the concept of citizens questioning politicians, policymakers – and themselves – has remained at the core of We the People/Wisconsin.
This citizen-based approach to journalism has not been just another civics lesson. It has led to some edgy news stories.
The 1992 presidential primary debate between Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown was the first “town hall” experience for Clinton in that campaign, but not his last. His performance in the 90-minute forum, which included live audiences in Beloit, Wausau and Minneapolis, Minn., helped to secure his victory in Wisconsin’s Democratic primary.
In 1993, the race for state Superintendent of Public Instruction may have turned when candidate Linda Cross alleged the state Department of Public Instruction and the statewide teachers union were collaborating to cover up child molesters in the teacher ranks.
The 1994 governor’s debate had two memorable moments: Dave Johnston of Eau Claire demanded that candidates Tommy Thompson and Chuck Chvala produce a property tax relief plan, in writing, by two weeks before the election. Both did. Thompson’s plan became the foundation for the 1995-97 state budget.
Milwaukee Washington High School student Greg Toliver told both candidates about crime in his neighborhood, and asked both candidates to “come walk with me” through the streets of Milwaukee. Both men did.
Land-use forums in 1995 and 1998 made it clear to state policymakers that more cooperation was needed between state and local governments. A blueprint for better relations was contained in Wisconsin’s 1999 “Smart Growth” law.
The 1998 U.S. Senate forum took an unexpected turn when candidate Mark Neumann spoke sharply to a young questioners, a woman who on-screen tears didn’t do much for Neumann’s image.
More than a dozen forums have focused on elections that are sometimes overlooked by voters – races for the state Supreme Court and state Superintendent of Schools. Most of the time, those We the People/Wisconsin forums offered the only chance for citizens to see the candidates on live, statewide television.
Over time, participants in We the People forums have acted as a “jury” to judge competing health-care plans, built their own federal and state budgets, debated the causes of juvenile crime and created a 15-year energy forecast for Wisconsin.
For the project’s news partners, it meant covering public affairs in a different way – less “horse-race” journalism and more coverage tied to what people say they need to know in order to make solid choices. As a result, it endures today as the nation’s oldest, continuously operated civic journalism project.
The project’s partners will celebrate 15 years of civic journalism Friday, Feb. 15, with a fundraising event at Madison’s Concourse Hotel. It’s really a celebration of civic innovation – using mass media to give citizens an unfiltered chance to ask their own questions. Please join us in marking this milestone in a uniquely Wisconsin story.
Still is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal and a co-founder of We the People/Wisconsin. He is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. The 15th Anniversary Celebration of We the People/Wisconsin will be held Friday, Feb. 15 at the Madison Concourse Hotel, 1 W. Dayton St., from 6 to 8 p.m. For tickets, please call (608) 259-0757.