Case Study: Winnipeg Free Press

In today’s competitive media landscape whether you are nonprofit or for-profit news venture, finding ways to engage with the community and sustain that relationship is a challenge. The Winnipeg Free Press tells us how they are making a big difference in their community one coffee at a time.

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 Winnipeg Free Press News Café is working to connect with a younger demographic as well as become more transparent and accessible to the public.

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

White: “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 (it) 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 it’s something we really prided ourselves on and we covered a lot of live press conferences and thought how can (we) exploit that? So, if we had a TV studio set up somewhere where we could host an event, broadcast itl ive, and serve the restaurant and the live audience, it would work.”

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

White: “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 prioirities, 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 of students that come in here as well. It’s a combination of location, the restaurant side, and the events we are holding there.”

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

White: “It’s a moving target that has kind of evolved over time. One of the 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 interest of all departments affected.”

A multimedia editor, social media reporter and video reporter all work at the café. The organization is 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.”

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

White: “The café is independently managed by a restauranteur and so we were working 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 retaurant and the news organization do the journalism. This model helps keep the business and the journalism separate.

Q: What has been the most succesful community event at the café?

White: “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.”

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

White: “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.

Q: What are your plans this year?

White: “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 it’s 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 café coordinating things and training.”

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

White: “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 to 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 (your city) does close down after 5 p.m. 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 hard to say no to something if you have real data that says depending on what your objectives are if it’s 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.”

Q: How does your café drive community engagement?

White: “Certainly topics can help drive attendance but it goes beyond that. The 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) undertsand it’s 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 part of the open discussion.”

He says the café recently hosted the cast from a movie for a Q&A. It was a niche interest for the people who came to the café.

“People are just happy to have access. As a major news organization, we have tremendous access to interesting people, whether it’s 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.”

The Winnipeg Free Press is part of a special project called the Community News Commons. The Winnipeg Foundation and the Knight Foundation are funding the three-year project. According to the Winnpeg 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.”

Q: Explain a bit 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.”

Q: 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.”

Q: What advice would you give to today’s news organizatinos?

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.”