Just about every major-city newspaper sees itself as responsible for encouraging readers to take an active role in their communities. But most do it by just reporting the news.
The city of Houston naturalizes several thousand new US citizens every year, many of whom are from Hispanic countries. At monthly naturalization ceremonies in Houston, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) was providing basic information to new citizens, such as passport forms and voter-registration information. Having bitten off slightly more than it could chew, however, NALEO asked the Houston Chronicle for assistance. "Originally, they just wanted an envelope they could put everything into, and make it look nice,
says Shelley Johnson, community relations coordinator at the Chronicle.
But the paper saw this as a chance to not only provide better, clearer information on the rights and freedoms that come with US citizenship, but to make people more aware of how to learn about and get involved with civic affairs.
Ultimately, the Chronicle sought to use naturalization ceremonies to position the paper as a way to learn about local and national issues.
At naturalization ceremonies over the course of a given year, explains Stephanie Knific, marketing and communications coordinator at the Chronicle, "there are about 150 nationalities represented, and they might not know where to turn. That's the kind of information we're in a position to provide."
Furthermore, the Chronicle realized that its efforts could help increase circulation.
After reviewing the information NALEO was already providing to new citizens, the Chronicle found that it could do more to explain what it means to be an American. It therefore developed a citizenship booklet (printed in several different languages) called United States Citizenship: An Honor, a Responsibility, which was bundled along with the information NALEO was already providing to new citizens. The booklet contains stories about other new citizens, US historical information (such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence), and even tips on writing to the Chronicle to express personal views in the paper's editorial pages. "We wanted to give these people not only information, but have it be a keepsake, and inform them about civic issues,
says Knific. Included with the booklet, she adds, is an offer for a free trial subscription to the Chronicle.
But given the fact that the newspaper wanted to distribute the booklet at INS naturalization ceremonies, the paper expected to encounter a bureaucratic hurdle or two. Fortunately, that wasn't the case. "Since NALEO was already working with the INS, we already had an in,
explains Johnson. "With the development of the booklet, we had to meet with the INS and show them what we planned to put in. I kept them involved along they way, and they never had any problems with it. It was good promotion for them, too."
The INS seemed to agree, as it later asked Chronicle associate editor Frank Michel, son to a Mexican father and Cuban mother, to be the speaker at one of the naturalization ceremonies. He also contributed a stirring introduction to the booklet, recounting his experience as a war correspondent in Bosnia, where the media was used to manipulate and tear people apart rather than inform and strengthen their communities.
"On the national level, trade publications have highlighted the Chronicle's efforts, and other newspapers have contacted us for information on instituting this type of campaign in their communities," says Knific, adding that public response in the Houston area has been "overwhelmingly positive."
Since the creation of the Chronicle's citizenship booklet, the INS has distributed over 2,200 copies at each of its monthly naturalization ceremonies.
Unfortunately, subscription numbers have been lower than expected, but Knific adds, "We plan on analyzing the current offer to determine how to attract more new subscribers in the future."
"We'd like to get a sponsor to keep the momentum,
says Johnson. "We don't want it to be a textbook, but we hope we can add to it, and hopefully it can become a tool in other ways, like donating it to educational organizations."
"This is really the first step,
says Knific. "Sponsorship would open new avenues as to where this can go."