News Cafes and Open Newsrooms

In this two-part series, the Hub explores how the news cafe/open newsroom model provides a different level of community engagement as well as a possible economic plus for the news organization. In two separate interviews with the Hub, the Winnipeg Free Press and The Register Citizen tell the Hub how they are making a big difference in their community one coffee at a time.

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osamukaneko / flickr

Who are these cafe/open newsroom innovators?
The Winnipeg Free Press has a daily newspaper circulation of 128,000 serving the communities of Winnipeg and Manitoba. They began their news café in March 2011 and John White, online deputy editor manages the Winnipeg Free Press News Café initiative.

The Register Citizen is based out of Torrington, Connecticut and has a daily newspaper circulation of 8,000. They began their open newsroom cafe in December 2010 and Matt DeRienzo, publisher of The Register Citizen and Connecticut group editor of the Journal Register Company, manages The Register Citizen Open Newsroom Cafe initiative.

Both have unique cafe operations with different missions. The Winnipeg Free Press News Cafe wants to find a way to reconnect with a younger demographic as well as become more transparent and accessible to the public. The Register Citizen Open Newsroom Cafe wants to help the community become more involved in the journalism process and let the public use the open newsroom space as a community center for gatherings, discussions, and educational opportunities.

Both White and DeRienzo had a moment to speak to the Hub to share their experiences about running these kind of initiatives at their news organizations:

Amy: How did the idea of the newsroom café come about?

White of Winnipeg Free Press: Publisher Bob Cox was at a news convention in Toronto and one of the presentations was about the original news café in Czechoslovakia. The concept there it was more of an actual café where a journalist would work and they would rotate that person in to try to get some story ideas. That was the original concept. Bob told me about that and I thought was really cool. I asked him if this was something he was really interested in and he said like with any idea, we have to make a business case for it. So I spent about a month doing all the research and working with organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, the downtown business association and getting as much real data as I could, to put together a pitch.

I presented that to Bob and he was impressed with it and impressed enough to share it with the ownership group and they thought it was kind of cool and they liked the idea of getting back downtown again but their primary concern was ‘We’ve never done this before and it’s a big risk.’ That’s when Bob started looking at getting a restaurant partner. With that major obstacle out of the way it was harder for them to say no. It was a combination of Bob recognizing the potential in that Czechoslovakia model and then thinking of the next step and creating essentially a satellite newsroom where we could host live public events. The timing was good too because we had been really pushing live video coverage over the website and its something we really prided ourselves on and we covered a lot of live press conferences and thought how can exploit that? So if we had a TV studio set up somewhere where we could host an event, broadcast it live, and serve the restaurant and the live audience it would work.

DeRienzo of The Register Citizen: John Patton came and visited our building pretty soon after he took over. Our building was kind of a poster child of the lack of investment in the community and lack of investment in the newspaper. It was a building built around manufacturing and it was not conducive to how we operated and it was not aimed to be open to the community. Patton said get out of this building and find another building that is more suitable to your employees. We used it as an opportunity to have a blank sheet of paper to have a physical space that reflected this new philosophy. So we tried to design a physical space that embodied those principles of the web, which was neat because we were already using social media to connect with people and engage with our readers. So we opened the doors wide to the community. You walk into our building it looks like a cross between a Starbucks and a library and kind of a newsroom. There’s leather couches and chairs and big screen TVs and you go a bit further and there are café tables, an outdoor courtyard with tables, free Wi-Fi, Artist of the Month hanging on the wall, coffee and pastries for sale. So that is part of the effort to bring people in. We wanted to design the building as a community center that had other reasons for them to be here than to talk to us. We wanted to have a continuum of engagement with the public.

Amy: Since you launched this initiative, what has been the community’s reception to it?

White of Winnipeg Free Press: It’s been well received and probably the most interesting point for me is that there are a lot of young people that come for the food or for an event. That was one of my priorities was to attract a younger demographic we have had difficulty reaching in the past with our brand. So, based on the location, it’s close to where a lot of young professionals work and it’s in an artsy area close to a lot of offices downtown. Also it’s by the Red River College downtown campus where the communications program is. We get a lot of students that come in here as well. It’s a combination of location, the restaurant side, and the events we are holding there.

According to DeRienzo, the open newsroom has been received well in their community. He stated that the outcome of the various events, meetings and collaborations with the community has helped their staff with engagement with stories, advancing their stories, and improving their journalism. “It’s been a very noticeable effect particularly in the areas of accuracy and advancing our stories,” he said.

Amy: How do you determine the events you have at the café?

White of Winnipeg Free Press: It’s a moving target that has kind of evolved over time. One of things I would suggest for anyone thinking about doing this is have an understanding that there are some additional roles that need to be picked up whether by existing staff or new staff. Event coordination is a big one. That person has to be sensitive to all the departments affected by the event. Obviously for the restaurant there is the catering component or if it’s a private function. A multimedia team is needed if they are expected to produce a live event there and a social media team obviously. The marketing department may be needed if it’s a marketing event or you may need marketing support. So it touches a lot of people. You really need a point person looking out for the interests of all the departments affected.

According to White, they have a multimedia editor, social media reporter and video reporter who all work at the café. They are currently making efforts to have more reporters and editors there. “We like to see the beat reporters there and have them accessible and add to the transparency of our brand,” White said.

Amy: What kind of revenue has been made so far from the operation? How much does it cost to operate the café?

DeRienzo of The Register Citizen: We have two revenue sources that we never thought we would have. The coffee and pastries, and we have our first commission on the sale of artwork on our walls from the Artist in Residence. But it’s pretty insignificant and it’s about engagement more than revenue.

White of Winnipeg Free Press: The café is independently managed by a restauranteur and so we were worked with him at start-up. So the restaurant side is independent of the Free Press and he lets us use the space to do the events to draw people in. It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship that way.

According to White, he recommends that others do this as well to leverage the experience of the groups accordingly – let the restauranteur run the restaurant and the news organization do the journalism. This kind of model helps to keep the business and the journalism separate.

Amy: What has been the most successful community event at the café?

White of Winnipeg Free Press: It has been full quite a few times, so it’s hard to gauge in terms of attendance. I am most proud of our election night coverage. We would make that the hub so people can come and watch the returns, watch our live broadcast and just talk about things as they happen – and those are always full. There’s a lot of energy in the building. Interestingly, a lot of young people are engaged in politics and in our coverage. We have done a couple there now.

DeRienzo of The Register Citizen: The most popular thing so far has been opening our newsroom. We have had events where 100-150 people showed up for a Congressman’s forum. We co-hosted a forum on bullying of LGBT youth with the local chapter of the ACLU, which was a powerful thing. I think the biggest success has been changing people’s perceptions of our accessibility and openness so that instead of them shaking their fist at us while drinking their coffee in the morning about our bias they know what our process is like and they call us and say, ‘you have missed the point on this about the neighborhood cell tower,’ and so it improves what we are doing.

Amy: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect to running the café? What obstacles have arisen that you didn’t fathom?

White of Winnipeg Free Press: The biggest one is not really knowing the kind of work that would go into the marketing side and the event coordination and I underestimated how much work that would take. That was the biggest one.

DeRienzo of The Register Citizen: The problem that we have is no different from any other newsroom. As a small newspaper, we have turnover, we have limited experience amongst the younger folks and not enough time to mentor them, and we also have one foot in print and one foot in digital and so that leads to burnout and everything else. John Patton describes what we are doing at the company is changing the wheels on a car that is driving down the highway at 60 miles per an hour and it does feel like that some days.

Amy: What are the plans for the café this year?

White of Winnipeg Free Press: We want to continue building on our roster of ongoing events. There is a local music night. I would like to have more evening events. It works well for us and it works well for the restaurant manager obviously because it brings people in after hours. Typically its packed for lunch and then not so much at night. We would like to see continuous activity there. Also, working in concert with the news commons concept and getting that off the ground this year. Having community journalism seminars and sessions as well and part of that will be to have our journalists there at the cafe coordinating things and training.

According to DeRienzo, they will focus on evolving their classroom workshops this year as well as evolving the editorial page and editorial board meetings as part of the open newsroom concept.

Amy: If someone wants to develop a similar initiative, what do you suggest are some things they consider?

White of Winnipeg Free Press: The biggest thing I think from my perspective is to do that exhaustive business plan because what happens is you have your own preconceptions of what you think will work and the only way to sell it your management is to talk to all the right people and ask all the questions – talk to business owners in the various areas you are considering in your city, find out what the real traffic patterns are, find out if it (city) does close down after five and everyone goes home.

You have to have real data otherwise you won’t get very far. You have to put aside your excitement for the project and make sure to do your homework. It’s a lot harder to say no to something if you have real data that says depending on what your objectives are if its to make a profit and you can show that after two or three years because year one you typically won’t make black.

Clearly state your objectives and demonstrate how you can achieve them. And from my perspective, I think I had six primary objectives and number six was make a small profit. The whole profit side was quite secondary. The primary objective for me was to reconnect our brand with a young audience. The secondary objective was to do the whole transparency and accessibility thing. Those are things I can measure after a year – how many events did we have, how were they received, have we received an increase in traffic, so all these things we can say yes to.

Stay tuned for next week’s part two of this special series!

Photo credit: osamukaneko via photopin cc