If what they’re doing in Torrington, Conn. is any indication, it’s definitely time to re-envision what it means to engage your audience.
In a move that actually saved money for the company, Torrington recently relocated to a new facility and in the process created an ‘open community newsroom’ environment. One change is a Newsroom Café, in close proximity to the newsroom staff, which offers free Wi-Fi for the general public.
Named “One of 10 That Do It Right” by Editor & Publisher for their open community newsroom, The Register-Citizen, a small market 8,000 circulation daily that’s owned by Journal Register Company, now routinely invites the public to attend, in person or via a live web stream, their daily news budget meeting; they welcome members of the community to come in and blog away on modern work stations; they offer free Wi-Fi in a cozy environment that’s closely situated to reporters and editors; they offer open access to more than 130 years of newspaper archives; they freely extend hospitality in the form of community rooms for area groups to host their own meetings; and there’s a coffee shop, the ‘newsroom café’, in which patrons can enjoy a cup of coffee and a locally baked pastry while tapping free Wi-Fi and perhaps interacting with members of the newspaper’s staff.
This physical manifestation of letting the community in is a reality in Torrington, with much credit to the leadership of publisher Matt DeRienzo who recognized that he had an opportunity to rethink the newsroom when his company got the go-ahead to move its location from the outdated print-manufacturing facility it previously occupied.
Under the leadership of ‘digital first, print last’ espousing CEO John Paton, JRC has practically reinvented itself in the last year with numerous bold moves to empower employees, remove obstacles and ultimately get finances moving in the right direction. Paton-inspired initiatives like the Ben Franklin Project, spearheaded by JRC V.P. of Content Jonathan Cooper, have gotten a lot of ink but the move atThe Register-Citizen last December could very well be the most meaningful one to date when it comes to truly engaging the community in local media.
What’s It All About?
The Register-Citizen is no different than many small market newspapers. Resources are a bit thin, staff is stretched, competitors abound. Publisher DeRienzo says that they face all of the problems that most have, if not more. Yet, he and his newsroom have managed to transform the culture of their work environment and simultaneously boost transparency in their work.
In a recent SNA Foundation sponsored webinar, Cooper & DeRienzo shared many aspects of the audience engaging initiatives underway within JRC and in Torrington. (Listen to an archived recording of their presentation.) They freely shared that their work is very much in the infancy stage and that not everything they’re trying will stick, or work everywhere, but the fundamental principle of opening up the news gathering/story assignment process to the audience is an important element of necessary change. Cooper was quick to remind that editors still edit and reporters still report; the difference now is that the newsroom purposely seeks audience input as a means to ensure that content is relevant to the users.
DeRienzo put it succinctly when he described that the competitor daily in his market is fighting a traditional newspaper war. Instead, DeRienzo says they he and his team are “fighting a war against becoming completely irrelevant to readers whose habits are changing.”
The moves they’ve made so far in Torrington have got people talking, walking and spending. On opening day of the new ‘open newsroom’, the paper hosted an open house of sorts and saw more visitors in a day than they saw over the course of the entire prior year.
The open archives, which includes a new microfilm machine and free access to over 130 years of newspaper records, has seen visitor activity every single day since it opened.
Representatives from a local theater company came in to tour the new facility with no agenda to buy media and ended up making a sizeable advertising commitment that reflected about a 300% increase in what they had spent over the prior year.
“The overall goal is to open up, to give more people who want to be part of a sustainable community the opportunity to do so,” says Cooper. “The more people who want to participate, the better it is for all of us.”
Two elements of the new open newsroom stirred a lot of interest in the recent webinar – the opening of the daily editorial story meeting and the inclusion of a Fact Check Box at the end of every single story posted at www.registercitizen.com.
In The Toolbox
The daily editorial story meeting is now open to the public. Anyone can sit in person or interact via live stream, and many webinar attendees wondered how that affects the tenor and openness of the discussion among the editors. Cooper said that initially the openness is shocking to the system for staffers who have done all of this away from the public for a very long time. “There are still conversations that need to happen in private and those can — being open doesn’t mean every aspect is shown,” reminded Cooper.
But, since news meetings are discussions about what stories should be pursued and how they should be presented, it’s natural to invite the audience to share their views. “(These matters) directly relate to the audience and should be open. Staffers may have to stifle some of their colorful or creative language and abandon nicknames for some sources but that’s a small price for what can come of this,” says Cooper.
The Fact Check Box is another element of the transparent culture they are seeking to establish with the community and, in the era of declining letters to the editor, helps to create an easy access touch point.
“Readers should have the opportunity to respond immediately and easily,” says DeRienzo. By explicitly asking your audience to directly converse with the newsroom on mistakes or underreported elements of a story, the newsroom is making an extremely public statement that they want to be held accountable for what’s in the story.
He added that the continuous circle of this type of communication – if they’re wrong, they freely admit it and the fact that the mistake was brought to attention thanks to a reader – helps to build trust and dispel the conspiracy theory of a liberal media. “They may believe you less but they trust you more,” added DeRienzo laughingly.
Cooper & DeRienzo shared an interesting example of how the new openness played out. In Torrington, the editors realized that it was time to revamp their corrections policy and one suggested that they have a closed door meeting to iron it out. ‘Just the opposite’ is what they ultimately decided and they asked for input from the audience. They now very public display their current policy and a list of recent corrections.
How To Pitch This to Your Publisher
So, you want to open your newsroom in a style similar to what the folks in Torrington are doing. Now what? One webinar attendee asked how do I ‘speak publisher language’ to get something like this approved.
Jon Cooper gave some great advice in follow up to the webinar:
Start by asking some basics: Does it have to make money? Could it save money? Could it replace an expense and be reallocated branding dollars? Instead of putting up a billboard could you spend that money and try this?
What does your organization value? Seriously, have this conversation with your department heads. In the broadest terms most organizations want to be the main source of community news and information on all platforms. (This even applies to advertising because they want the largest audience because it makes sales easier.)
Have that discussion. If the goal is to grow audience and community awareness then you have the goal. Now, work on the tactics. Pick easy wins to start. Add more audience to your day-to-day with polls, user-generated content, UGC sections or specials … get other departments to start a community focus.
- Circulation can take old, broken vending boxes and refurb them and give them to local art classes and artists to paint and decorate. Create an artwalk in the community and grow awareness of your brand. Run print ads that show the boxes and where they are. Invite the audience to go to your website and vote for their favorites.
- Dust off one of your special sections and turn it over to the community. From gift guides to local landmarks to an online photo or video contest of “what I love about (your town here)” … let the audience fill it. If the audience fills it and sales can sell it, you have a win to showcase.
- Start small. If you can create a community art space in your lobby, start there. If you can send one of your feature reports or editors to set up shop in a high traffic area in town and then actively invite the audience to stop by and talk, try that. (Take a look at this link:http://www.slate.com/id/2175662/) You aren’t going to be able to tear out walls tomorrow so find ways to move one brick at a time.
You’re right to ask how to “speak publisher” but remember that your publisher isn’t just about dollars. (Keep reading after the eye rolls). Seriously, your publisher is about your brand. Can you convince him/her to stop buying mousepads or umbrellas with your logo and give you $500 to try a program like this? Could you get circulation and marketing (if you have a marketing department) to help you find a sponsor for the honor box project? Get creative with the solutions and have multiple ways to accomplish it before asking permission.
I know I’ll regret this but the other advice is don’t ask permission. If it results in more readership, more audience, more community, more circulation, more ad sales, more revenue, less expense … can you get in trouble? Not saying to keep your boss in the dark but if you find a success and build on it, you’ll have better luck in that larger conversation.
Resources & Follow Up
The progress they’re making at JRC is thanks to teams who are trying and willing to take that first leap and they want to continue the progress through open collaboration. Email ideas, questions or tweet folks in their organization with the hashtag #JRC and someone will offer you some feedback.
Reach Jon Cooper, VP Content for JRC, firstname.lastname@example.org
Reach Matt DeRienzo, Publisher, The Register Citizen, email@example.com
Mobile Journalism Reporting Tools Guide
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The Ben Franklin Project