Case Study: Connecticut Register Citizen

Another approach news organizations are taking when it comes to community engagement involves opening the newsroom to the public. The Register Citizen explains how they are making a big difference in their community with their open newsroom model.

The Register Citizen is based out of Torrington, Conn. and has a daily newspaper circulation of 8,000. It began its 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.

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.

Q: How did the idea of the newsroom cafe come about?

DeRienzo: “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 cafe 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.

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

DeRienzo said teh open newsroom has been received well in their community. He said the outcome of the various events, meetings and collaborations with the community have helped the staff with engagement with story ideas, advancing their stories and improving their journalism.

DeRienzo: “It’s been a very noticeable effect, particularly in the areas of accuracy and advancing our stories.”

Q: What kind of revenue has been made so far from the operation?

DeRienzo: “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.”

Q: What has been the most successful community event?

DeRienzo: “the most popular thing so far has been opening our newsroom. We have had events where 100 to 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.”

Q: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of running the cafe?

DeRienzo: “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-hour, and it does feel like that some days.

Q: What are your plans for the next year?

DeRienzo said the cafe will focus on evolving its classroom workshops this year, as well as evolving the editorial page and editorial board meetings as part of the open newsroom concept.

Q: How does your cafe drive community engagement?

DeRienzo: “Every time we do something we meet a remarkable community member who has so much to offer and so many ideas. When you have a philosophy of cmmunity 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 said that the organization’s collaboration goes beyond community members. The cafe has content partnerships with the New Haven Independent, the Connecticut Health Investigative Team, Connecticut Watchdog and the CT Mirror. He said a new ecology of news that has sprung up in the community is the local blogosphere.

“The bloggers can use our cafe as a place to blog and get resources to help with their work. 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.”

Q: 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 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.”