News Cafes and Open Newsrooms Part 2

In this two-part series, the Hub explores how community engagement can be achieved in the news organization when outside-the-box approaches are applied. In two separate interviews with the Hub, John White of the Winnipeg Free Press and Matt DeRienzo of The Register Citizen talk about how they reach out to the public and how it impacts the kind of journalism they do.

Outside-the-Box Approaches to Community Engagement

As mentioned in last week’s post, both the Winnipeg Free Press News Café and the Register Citizen Open Newsroom Cafe are unique initiatives. These two cafes go beyond the function of just serving a coffee and allowing the public to chat with the local reporter, but it creates the infrastructure necessary to support a level of community engagement that is participative, transparent, and accessible.

For the Winnipeg Free Press News Café, its café serves as a location for events, a workspace for their reporters, and a place to host public forums on a variety of topics. Uniquely, the café is run independently from the news organization, which allows for the Winnipeg Free Press to focus on journalism without having worrying about how to run a restaurant.
For the Register Citizen Open Newsroom Café, its cafe serves as a community center for classes and workshops, meetings, interaction with the reporters, access to newspapers from their digital archive, showcasing community artwork, and hosting public forums on a variety of topics.

Amy: How does your café drive community engagement?

White: Certainly topics can help drive attendance but it goes beyond that. They key is you have to be seen as a credible news organization in terms of hosting these events and it’s not a one-sided event – that you are not a mouthpiece for some interest group. Once they (the public) understand its free access for everyone, we try to do what is best for the audience. It kind of transcends the topic and they (the public) just want to be a part of the open discussion.

White stated that they recently had the cast from a movie at the café for Q&A. It was a niche interest for the people who came to the café that were interested in that movie.

“People are just happy to have access,” White said. “As a major news organization, we have tremendous access to interesting people whether its entertainment or sports. Two weeks ago, we had the chairman of the Winnipeg Jets for a Q&A, which is never done. It was a really candid interview. We are becoming known as the place to go to have a good interview.”

According to DeRienzo, several natural collaborations have occurred in the open newsroom café as a result of the events they have held.

“Every time we do something we meet a remarkable community member who has so much to offer and so many ideas,” DeRienzo said. “When you have a philosophy of community building, openness and transparency, just following the link economy and not the old legacy print model, it’s amazing how much comes back in your direction.”

DeRienzo mentioned that their collaboration goes beyond the community. They also have content partnerships with New Haven Independent, the Connecticut Health Investigative Team, Connecticut Watchdog and the CT Mirror.

According to DeRienzo, a new ecology of news that has sprung up in their community. He said their open newsroom serves allows them to work alongside the community bloggers.

“The bloggers can use our cafe as a place to blog and get resources to help with their work,” he said. “We don’t seek to own or control anything. We want to link them and through curated links. We want them to link to us. We seek to work with them on stories.”

The Winnipeg Free Press is part of a special project called the “Community News Commons.” The Winnipeg Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation are funding the three-year project. According to the Winnipeg Foundation website the aim of the project is to “include training and mentoring for citizen journalists, as well as multi-media platforms to share the news and information they deem most important. It will also feature technology hubs for information access and uploading in select Winnipeg Public Library branches, and opportunities for Red River College journalism students.”

I asked White to explain some more details about the Community News Commons.

White: It’s still evolving. The project convener started a few weeks ago. The key objective is transparency. How do we bring transparency to our brand and recognizing that Generation Y demands transparency. To fulfill that objective, I wanted to open things up, provide training to those interested, and provide tools they need to tell stories, and they get a deeper understanding of the challenges we face day to day. We have the chance to cover stories we don’t have the manpower to cover – more at the community level – typically community journalism is more micro.

How should news organizations bring in the community, especially the younger demographic?

White: The biggest objective that editorial departments should be striving for is – grow audience regardless of what device they are getting the content on or how they are interacting with their brand. As long as they still believe in your brand and still come to you for some kind of information in some kind of format, and once things shake out five years from now, you will still have that key audience that still believes in you. It’s irrelevant of what device you are on.

Amy: How might the open newsroom represent the future of journalism?

DeRienzo: There is no scarcity of news sources anymore and the way people are accessing news has totally changed. If we don’t have a relationship with the audience, how irrelevant are we? So we have to involve them in every step of the process – that is the philosophy with the open newsroom. Time will tell. We are betting strongly on one horse here. It’s the opposite of the one of putting up a paywall with those sharing. It would be as if we put up a paywall between our relationship with the audience and their relationship between each other in terms of just being able to share stories with each other for example.

Amy: What advice would you give to today’s news organizations?

White: There’s a level of desperation among news agencies as circulation continues to erode. You have to be willing to try new things and new things that can be scary which isn’t to say that you should take risks that aren’t well researched. You have to try 10 or 12 new things and if three of them stick and help you gain audience then you are doing something right. You just have to be willing to try something new.