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Shahid Abdul-Karim named community engagement editor at New Haven Register

21 Feb

I’m pleased to announce that Shahid Abdul-Karim has been promoted to the position of community engagement editor at the New Haven Register. In that role, he will focus on involving the community at every step of the process of local journalism, including outreach and partnerships with community organizations and readers.

Shahid Abdul-Karim

Shahid Abdul-Karim

Shahid joined the Register in June 2012 and has distinguished himself as a member the city reporting staff.

He is a 2006 graduate of Springfield (Mass.) College with a bachelor’s degree in human services. Since 1999, he has been a staff reporter for the Muslim Journal and in 2009 was selected to its board of directors.

Shahid succeeds Ed Stannard, who helped inaugurate the community engagement editor role at the New Haven Register in 2011. Ed, a former metro editor and Sunday editor in his 22 years with the Register, wanted to move back to a more direct role in news coverage at the paper and has taken on a senior reporting role that has already been integral to our coverage of mental health issues and other matters in the wake of the Newtown school shooting.

Email Shahid at Follow him on Twitter @shahid_akarim.

New Haven Register reporters fix up readers looking for love

14 Feb

Three reporters at the New Haven Register can look back on this Valentine’s Day and say they’ve done  more than their part over the past year in playing cupid.

Annette Kirk, a supervisor at the Knights of Columbus, and Dan LaTorraca, a retired banker from Hamden, were fixed up on a date at Bar Bouchee in Madison thanks to the New Haven Register Matchmaker program.

Amanda Pinto, Alexandra Sanders and Susan Misur launched the Register’s “Matchmaker” program last year after Managing Editor Mark Brackenbury asked staff to think up community engagement ideas.

They set up readers on dates at local restaurants, who donate a $100 gift certificate for the occasion and get some free publicity in the process.

Pinto got the idea after being glued to a similar feature, “Dining with Cupid,” a few years ago in the Boston Globe.

“I was convinced the model would work here – as a vehicle to bring in younger readers and foster community engagement,” Pinto said. “It is intriguing copy, and it has that ‘reality TV’ voyeurism aspect that is so popular today.”

Pinto had to think through liability issues, seeking and getting permission from the Globe to mirror its legal release form for participants. And how to best solicit participants.

“There have been hiccups,” she said. “The first match we sent out was a disaster, and the man, who maligned an ethnic group during his date (according to the woman he dined with), threatened to sue us if we published the column. Even though he had signed off on all the paperwork, the decision was made that it was best not to start off on that foot.”

“Once we started publishing matches, there were other challenges – daters who bailed at the last minute or never returned our calls,” Pinto said. “We very nearly sent one woman to a restaurant owned by her former boss (the work relationship had ended badly).”

But there have been many success stories.

Since launching in late summer, 140 readers have signed up to participate, ranging in age from 21 to 83.

Melissa Tardif, a custodian at Quinnipiac University and dental hygienist, and Vincent Cerbone, an ultrasound technologist from Fairfield, hit it off from the start at their Matchmaker date at Leon's in New Haven. "I noticed how gentleman-like he was. ... He seemed genuine and real, like a great father, attentive."

Pinto, Sanders and Misur have paired readers up for dates once a week since August, with the help of 17 participating restaurants. They’re on their 20th match.

Readership has been strong.

“One dater told me she got recognized on the street for her participation in Matchmaker, and that a convenience store clerk spotted her and regaled other customers with a retelling of the column,” Pinto said. “Another reporter here was told a small office ‘didn’t get any work done’ the morning one of the columns came out, because they couldn’t stop discussing the date, which featured a ‘great kisser.'”

Matchmaker participants are asked to describe the night in an article that appears each week in the Register and to give a letter grade to the date.

And the possibility of a love connection? Many of the readers who have been set up on Matchmaker dates say they’ll see each other again.

New Haven Independent shuts down story comments, leaving a two-legged stool

8 Feb

The New Haven Independent is a strong model for local journalism for three reasons, in my opinion:

– The news judgment and journalistic chops of founder Paul Bass and the team he’s built over the years.

– Their strong connections to the community and seamless engagement in community dialogue and solution-seeking.

– The participation of their audience at every step in the process, from story idea, to reporting, to editing, reaction and follow-up.

It’s a formula we have tried to emulate at our newspapers in Connecticut, bringing transparency to our process and investing in community engagement both in terms of resources and focus.

So it was like a needle scratching across a vinyl record yesterday to read that Paul was shutting down story comments on the site.

How can the community be part of your journalism if you don’t even allow them to comment on what you do?

The Independent has had a pretty tightly moderated story comment system that has been praised by media critic Dan Kennedy and for several years stood in stark contrast to the New Haven Register’s “everything goes up and is policed after the fact” policy. We changed that policy in the fall and now have basically the same system as the Independent. You can still comment anonymously, but every comment is screened in advance by our staff and we have a set of rules and guidelines for those commenting and for moderators.

Paul Bass said in his explanation about shutting off comments that he’s noticed the tone getting worse, even with moderation, and was stung by a recent incident in which a nasty comment accidentally made it up on the site. (We’ve seen this kind of human error happen, too, for sure … especially with the large volume of comments we’re dealing with.) He said:

“Is this the long-awaited new dawn of democracy and accountability we thought we were helping to help spark in New Haven by launching the Independent in 2005? Or are we contributing to the reflexively cynical, hate-filled discourse that has polluted American civic life? Are we reviving the civic square? Or managing a sewer with toxic streams that demoralize anyone who dares to take part in government or citizen activism?”

In his column, Paul suggested that the Independent was taking a “break” from story comments, hinting that perhaps after regrouping they would be back with either a renewed moderation effort or a different system.

But he also suggests that maybe they shouldn’t exist at all, and that perhaps the conversation happening via social media on Independent stories has or can replace the very concept of story comments.

There are so many problems with the latter argument. What a way to speed alienation and distrust in your audience – to say that they can “go elsewhere” to react, challenge or add context to your journalism. And you’re not even saying that you’ll be joining them “over there” (and if that discussion is happening on individual Facebook pages, you won’t necessarily even have access). Because (implied) you don’t care what they have to say and don’t believe they have anything to contribute.

To me, this is the “anti-New Haven Independent” philosophy of news. It goes against so much of what has made that organization great.

(And P.S. – just because the conversation happens on social media, with verified identities, doesn’t mean it will be any less nasty. Have you followed Facebook and Twitter conversations lately?)

So I’m hoping that, indeed, this is a very short “break” that will allow Paul Bass and the New Haven Independent to come up with a better model for story comment and on-site engagement … maybe something we can learn from once again.

Mathew Ingram is far more articulate than I in defending the existence of story comments and in making the case that anonymous comments have value. But I wonder if the Independent will go to a system such as a Facebook plug-in (requiring you to comment with your Facebook ID) or take it a step further and switch to the old letters-to-the-editor-style verified identity system that has been used at the Lewiston Sun Journal in Maine and advocated by Howard Owens, another leader in creating a sustainable hyperlocal model.

Shutting off comments (for good, I mean … I respect the Independent’s decision to “pause and hit the reset button”) deals with abusive commenters and a toxic environment the way that cutting your arm off would deal with a skin rash.

The ability to comment is at step one in building a relationship of trust and collaboration with our audience. Preventing the jerks from pissing all over that platform is step two. We’re not there yet, but building a better sense of community (which must involve injection of more real identity commenting, but doesn’t necessarily have to preclude anonymous) and constant and quality engagement in story comments by our reporters and editors should follow.

Citizens Agenda: Peacetime conversion, corporate influence on politics emphasized in first 2012 election forum

27 Jan

Peacetime conversion. Corporate influence on politics. The unfair burden of student loans. The media’s obsession with New Hampshire and Iowa. The complete absence of coverage of the candidates and ideas of the Green Party and Libertarians.

New Haven Register Community Engagement Editors Ed Stannard and Angi Carter

These are not issues you’re likely to see emphasized on CNN or at a Republican presidential debate this winter.

But this is what citizens wanted to talk about at the New Haven Public Library Wednesday night when two dozen people joined New Haven Register Community Engagement Editors Ed Stannard and Angi Carter for the first in a series of forums on how we should approach 2012 political coverage.

The New Haven Register, Middletown Press and Register Citizen are partnering with The Guardian and NYU’s Studio 20 journalism graduate school program on the “Citizens Agenda,” an approach to political coverage that aims to depart from “horse race journalism” and put readers in charge of determining the issues they want candidates to address.

While the Guardian focuses on the 2012 presidential race, our journalists in Connecticut will be applying the Citizens Agenda concept to two open and highly competitive races – the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Joe Lieberman and the 5th District U.S. Congress seat being vacated by Chris Murphy (who is running for Lieberman’s Senate seat).

Over the next month, we’ll be holding a series of open forums, reaching out to readers via social media, surveys and other methods and meeting with specific groups and constituencies seeking to identify, separately, the issues that voters most want addressed by candidates in those two races.

Then, instead of assigning reporters to get the inside scoop on “process stories” from Linda McMahon‘s campaign manager, or a Democratic Party establishment operative, we’ll assign a reporter to each of the issues that’s identified.

So, instead of chasing the story about who is up and down in polling or fundraising, or the daily barrage of press release pot-shots exchanged between the campaigns, one of our reporters, for example, would be writing about how the U.S. Senate candidates would shape policy on the issue of taxation.

Another reporter might be writing in-depth about the issue of job creation, engaging with readers and trying to compel the candidates to respond with specifics on that topic.

Other reporters might be focusing on health care, or redevelopment of Brownfields properties … whatever issues are identified through the Citizens Agenda process.

The crowd at our first Citizens Agenda forum in New Haven Wednesday included Democrats, Republicans, a Green Party activist, a Ron Paul supporter, a leader of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters and a long-shot U.S. Senate candidate who showed up with his 2-year-old son.

The most-talked about issue of the night was “peacetime conversion” – whether the country will continue its policy of funding a military that can fight two wars at the same time, how we’ll invest the billions that have been spent on the war in Iraq, whether our foreign policy will improve or worsen instability in the Middle East, and energy independence.

Corporate influence in politics was also a theme, with multiple people expressing alarm about the “Citizens United” decision and the role so-called Super PACs are playing in this year’s campaigns.

Because the Citizens United decision does not require donors (some who are pouring millions into the support of or opposition to particular candidates) be identified until after the election, one participant Wednesday urged the media to focus its reporting on “unmasking” those donors and documenting the role of Super PACs.

There was plenty of criticism of and suggestions about the media’s role in political coverage.

We were urged to include Green Party candidates and Libertarian candidates, and the ideas put forth in their platforms, as part of our coverage. Most media fail to even include them in listings of who is running, one man said.

Another person criticized the media for allowing candidates to make points based on isolated statistics or trends that don’t see the “long view” or bigger context.

The “shallow” nature of Associated Press reporting, and the lack of international perspective in American newspaper and TV reporting, were decried.

Another participant asked why the national media and candidates were allowed to focus obsessively on “early state” primaries and caucuses such as Iowa and New Hampshire when they represent a tiny number of electoral votes.

One man said he is left at a loss sometimes in reading long New York Times pieces that chronicle a viewpoint from one perspective, and then a viewpoint from the opposite perspective, but that don’t help bring much final clarity or conclusion on the topic for readers. (“View from Nowhere,” anyone?)

And finally, participants in our first forum on Wednesday, wanted to know “what good it’s going to do” to identify Citizens Agenda issues considering politicians are politicians and probably won’t change.

Jay Rosen of NYU and Amanda Michel of The Guardian said it best in explaining the Citizens Agenda launch:

“The ultimate goal of a citizens agenda is to bring the candidates to it, so that what people want the candidates to be discussing is actually addressed. Campaign coverage gains a clear purpose: information and access that is useful to people in getting their priorities addressed.”


Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe celebrates one-year anniversary

16 Dec

Hard to believe, but it’s been one year since The Register Citizen launched a “Newsroom Cafe” and invited its audience to be involved at every step in the process of local journalism.

Boiling it down, we’ve learned that:

Managing Editor Emily M. Olson leads a workshop for local organizations and church groups on how to get information published by The Register Citizen.

– Transparency builds trust.

– Openness improves your journalism, leading to new and more diverse sources and improving accuracy and context.

– Partnerships make you stronger.

As Andy Carvin said recently, it’s not about “leveraging your audience.” It’s about listening and knowing how the audience is telling its own story, and in some ways acting as a facilitator as the community organizes itself around common interests or goals.

If you feel that you must own and control every piece of content and platform for delivery, you will wither and die in isolation from the networked world.

In terms of tactical lessons learned over the past year, we’ve found that:

– There will never be a good time to commit time to audience engagement, becoming more transparent, trying new things and training staff, especially in a newsroom as small as ours. You have to “just do it.”

– Effective community engagement won’t happen on your terms, it will happen on the audience’s terms. Their lives don’t revolve around your internal process or desire to get a story done. But the power of the crowd can be amazing when you’ve tapped into something that citizens care deeply about and are either already organizing around or have been waiting for a platform to organize around. Readers (for the most part) aren’t going to tune in to the live stream of your daily story meeting because they care about what you talk about every day. They’re going to tune in because they know you’ll be discussing a particular issue that affects their neighborhood, workplace or family. Or the ideal – they’ll tune in because they feel welcomed to bring up that issue to you because you HAVEN’T been discussing it and they think you should.

– The logistics of community engagement deserve a dedicated staff position (or positions), but it’s a principle that must be incorporated into everything we do and taken up by everyone in the newsroom.

– “Just do it” should be the mantra given the urgent need to transform our business model and how quickly things around us change. But we need to spend more time along the way communicating internally and making sure that every employee understands and buys in to the underlying principles of openness and engagement. You can be undermined pretty quickly by staff who are just going through the motions.

Significant articles that have been written about the Newsroom Cafe experiment and/or its role in the JRC turnaround over the past year:

GigaOm, “For Newspapers, the Future is Now and Digital Must Be First,” December 2, 2010

New York Times, “Walk in, Grab a Muffin, and Watch a Newspaper Reinvent Itself,” December 15, 2010

Poynter, “Register Citizen Takes Analog Approach to Reader Engagement: Open Doors,” December 16, 2010

Suburban Newspapers of America, “Opening Up Your Newsroom,” March 7, 2011

Editor & Publisher, “10 Newspapers That Do It Right,” March 15, 2011

Nieman Lab, “Journal Register’s Open Advisory Meeting: Bell, Jarvis and Rosen Put Those New Media Maxims to the Test,” March 25, 2011

Poynter, “At Washington Post and Register Citizen, ‘report-an-error’ forms make it easier to identify, respond to mistakes,” April 4, 2011

NewspaperTurnaround.Com blog, “Why Our Small Town Daily is Adding a Full-Time Curator,” April 20, 2011

JoyMayer.Com, “Inside the Engagement Experiments at The Register Citizen,” May 4, 2011

Columbia Journalism Review, “John Paton’s Big Bet,” July/August 2011

EditorsWeblog.Org, “JRC’s Jim Brady: Uniting Digital First With a Face-to-Face Approach,” September 5, 2011

Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe blog, “What the Newsroom Cafe Has Taught Us About Improving Local Journalism,” September 13, 2011

The Associated Press, Open Connecticut Newsroom Wins APME Innovation Award,” September 15, 2011

American Journalism Review, “Wooing Them With Coffee,” October/November 2011

Connecticut Newsroom blog, “Corrections, Fact Checking and Accountability: Our New Approach,” October 26, 2011

Annenberg Innovation Lab paper by Melanie Sill, “The Case for Open Journalism Now,” December 7, 2011

John Paton’s “Digital First” blog, “New Media’s New Role as Both Medium and Messenger in a World of Partnerships,” December 13, 2011

Chris March is disrupting our newsroom

9 Dec

I just wanted to write a job description that included the words “blowing stuff up.”

That’s what Chris March’s new role will be at the New Haven Register and Journal Register Company’s other newsrooms in Connecticut.

Chris March

He’s been promoted to Assistant Managing Editor for Disruption and is an integral part of a bigger newsroom reorganization announced last week.

Go ahead, poke fun at the future-of-journalism pretentiousness of that title. But we wanted to send a strong message to our staff and our audience. We must, and we intend to, disrupt how we’ve operated for decades.

“We can’t afford to think and act like a newspaper anymore,” Chris said. “We can’t keep doing things a certain way because ‘that’s how we’ve always done that.’ That’s the reality. When you look at the Journal Register Connecticut newsrooms like that, you start to see things that don’t make as much sense as when we started doing them or when we had a bigger staff. That’s what we have to disrupt, or rethink.”

That includes many aspects of our internal, print edition-focused newsroom operation. That includes how we gather news and how we present it. That includes our definition of “news” and “content” and “journalism.” And that most certainly includes how we interact with and treat our audience.

We’re shifting significant resources away from print and toward Breaking News, Community Engagement and Investigative and In-Depth Reporting. To start, Chris will be leading us through the changes in technology and process that are needed to pull this off.

“I think some of the things we’ve started to dismantle and rethink already as part of our newsroom reorganization, such as how we approach election coverage, moderate online comments and engage with the community, is going to start making some big noise in a really meaningful way for us.”

Chris is quite literally a newspaper kid. His mother, Nancy, is editor of The Mercury, a JRC daily in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and his father, Bill, is managing editor of The Daily Local, a JRC daily in nearby West Chester. “Growing up, they told me to get into anything but writing and newspapers, because of the hours and low pay. And I didn’t argue with that, because why would I?” he said. “But when I was captain of my high school cross country team … I started writing and publishing a weekly newspaper. And that was it. By accident, I stumbled across that joy of capturing a little community in words and watching everyone pass it around and talk about it. I haven’t wanted to do anything other than that since. Plus, it’s cool to rebel against your parents, right?”

Chris graduated from Penn State with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He wrote about the punk and indie music scene for in college, which led to some freelance work in music and entertainment.

In 2007, he joined The Mercury as Promotions and Marketing Coordinator, and in May 2010, he moved to Connecticut to work at the New Haven Register as an online producer. In August of that year, Chris was named to Journal Register Company’s Idea Lab, which equips members with tech tools and frees them up to spend 25 percent of their work week experimenting on new ideas.

He lives in New Haven.

“My modus operandi is discovery and exploration. That extends from music and travel to beer and community journalism. I like being one of those people who sniffs around for the little places where truth and all-out-radness are waiting to be discovered. That’s why I like what we’re doin here at JRC and the New Haven Register right now. We’re exploring. And we’re discovering. And I’m very proud to be a part of that,” he said. “I grew up at a dinner table where the talk was often about how the newspaper business is broken, and a dead end. Now I sit down at the dinner table and talk about how we’re fixing it, and making it a road with possibility and promise.”

Investigative and in-depth reporting bolstered by ‘Digital First’

28 Nov

“What about the journalism?”

That’s the question media analyst Ken Doctor asked a few months ago about both the philosophy of a “digital first” approach to running newspapers and the newly formed company “Digital First” Media that now oversees both Journal Register Company (including the New Haven Register, Middletown Press and Register Citizen, among other publications, in Connecticut) and Media News Group (ranging from the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury News to the Berkshire Eagle and Lowell Sun in Massachusetts).

Michelle Tuccitto Sullo

CEO John Paton has a plan that many see as the best hope for rescuing the newspaper industry (in case you missed it, see the recent New York Times story here, and a more extensive Times interview with Paton here).

Will Paton’s formula of cutting print edition-related costs and emphasizing Flip cameras, mobile phones and Twitter improve local journalism or leave a multi-platformed but shallow and empty reproduction in its place?

At the end of the day, Doctor asked, “Are the readers, the citizens of its communities, better served?”

Without question, Journal Register Company news organizations are serving their communities better in breaking news situations thanks to the philosophy of “Digital First.” Hurricane Irene was a great example. When it comes to speed and use of platforms beyond print – from SMS alerts, to social media, blogging, video – we are light years ahead of where we used to be, and our audience has benefited.

But what about depth, context, investigative reporting?

It has taken longer to bear fruit, but as Digital First shifts emphasis away from the print production process, it is freeing up resources to invest in better journalism. And “slow news” – journalism that delves deeply into a story, that invests staff time in investigative work – has a prominent place alongside the breakneck pace of breaking news alerts.

This morning, we announced a newsroom reorganization in Connecticut that will establish a full-time investigations editor position at the New Haven Register for the first time in more than 20 years. A second full-time position will be devoted to the “explainer” format of in-depth reporting on local and state issues and “fact checking” statements made by politicians, public officials, activists and business leaders.

Mary O'Leary

Michelle Tuccitto Sullo, who joined the Register in 1992 and has covered courts and served as Naugatuck Valley bureau chief, will be charged not only with pursuing investigative stories on her own, but in creating a culture of investigative reporting in the newsrooms of the New Haven Register and its sister JRC papers in Connecticut. She’ll team up with staff reporters to pursue stories that the daily grind of a beat don’t allow them to pursue. Michelle draws upon strong knowledge of court and Freedom of Information Act process and award-winning investigative experience in writing about cold case murder and missing persons cases.

New Haven Register Topics Editor Mary O’Leary, who has 31 years of experience covering state government and a variety of other beats at the paper, will be freed from chasing the press conference of the day to focus on in-depth reporting. She will split her time between “explainers” and “fact checking” – both aimed at cutting through the “he said, she said” blizzard of political spin and process to help our readers get to the truth.

We are creating these positions and replacing Michelle and Mary in their old beats, for a big net increase in our “feet on the street” reporting. And we’re doing that by consolidating positions that were focused either entirely or primarily on the process of putting out the print edition of the newspaper.

The limitations of our 97% white newsroom

5 Nov

It’s not an exaggeration or a figure of speech. It’s the actual percentage. Our newsroom at the New Haven Register is 97 percent white. We do not look like the city that we cover (New Haven is 37 percent white).

We are a worse newspaper because of it.

I’m not talking about extreme examples – like this racist manipulation of a news story at a Chicago TV station.

But lack of diversity in our newsroom affects us in ways that we don’t realize.

It has come up over the past few days as we’ve sought public input on changing our online story comment system at the Register. At a public forum Thursday night, a reader was incredulous that we have allowed viciously racist comments to appear on our website and have yet to fix the problem after several years of awareness.

In a blog post about that forum, I suggested that the system would have been changed a long time ago if we’d been listening like we did on Thursday night. (In-person conversations and asking the community for advice has a different impact on decisions than fielding angry phone calls or emails, which there were plenty of over the past few years.) And I said that the system would have changed long before now if the New Haven Register newsroom were not 97 percent white.

Well, the fact is that New Haven’s newsroom staff – pretty much unanimously – has been horrified and upset by racist and other offensive story comments for a long time. Former Editor Jack Kramer pushed several times for a change similar to the one we’re about to make.

If you read my post as saying that nothing was done because the newsroom is 97 percent white and didn’t care enough to make it happen, you’d be pretty upset after fighting for two years to do just that.

What I’m saying is that there was a newsroom full of people who understood and wanted to do the right thing, and it still didn’t happen. My argument is that if there were more newsroom employees of color, especially in leadership positions, the arguments for changing it (a sharper, more urgent message, perhaps) would have overcome whatever company bureaucracy, failure to agree on a plan for implementation or other sticking point that was holding things up.

Since taking over as head of New Haven Register parent Journal Register Company in February 2010, John Paton has lamented the lack of diversity both in our newsrooms and in the absence of women and people of color in key leadership positions in the parent company. He has pledged to make this a priority.

To be blunt, if the company allowed a forum for racist comments and stereotypes for years (regardless of who or how many people pushed to end it, it wasn’t fixed), and you agree with me that more diversity in the newsroom and in company leadership would have meant a different result, then how else is lack of diversity affecting us? What is our news coverage missing? How is it warped by the world view shaped by the homogenous racial experience of our reporters and editors?

It’s an inconvenient time to raise this topic. Newsrooms aren’t hiring, and the New Haven Register is no exception.

But if we’re serious about “community engagement” and building a relationship of trust with the audience, it’s the elephant in the room. Diversity has to be high on our agenda over the next year. I don’t have a plan for getting to where we need to be, but I’m committed to asking the newsroom, the audience and those who are doing it right for help in creating one.

Community engagement can reveal big gap in newsroom, audience perceptions

4 Nov

We invited the public to an open forum about online story comments at the New Haven Public Library last night, and we came away with some powerful arguments for community engagement and transparency.

The turnout was small – four people in attendance with more watching video on our website and participating in a live chat – but the feedback was powerful.

Yvonne Manning-Jones of Hamden said that racist comments on the New Haven Register’s website have changed how she views the community. She wonders if the waiter serving her at a local restaurant, or the co-worker who sits next to her, could be one of these people anonymously saying these things. Do they look at the color of her skin and assume she is on welfare, or a criminal?

Marianne Carolla makes a point to Regional Editor Matt DeRienzo during a public forum on the Register's online comments policy held at the New Free Public Library Thursday evening.

Manning-Jones has been so outraged by the nature of comments on the site – and how long the newspaper has allowed them to continue – that she has started copying examples and pasting them to her Facebook page, asking her friends whether they should be supporting any business that provides a platform for this with their advertising or home delivery subscription.

Of course, editors and reporters have cringed over the nature of story comments like this for a long time. But hearing how it is viewed by and affects Manning-Jones brings home a sense of urgency that wasn’t there. Which raises the question: How long ago would the system have been changed if we had been out there listening all along? And how quickly would it have been addressed if the top leadership and ranks of the newsroom were not 97 percent white? (And yes, that is the actual ethnic breakdown of newsroom staff at the New Haven Register, which serves a city whose population is only 37 percent white.)

Absent a dialogue between editors and the audience about it, a perception has developed that the New Haven Register at the very least didn’t care enough about the racist comments to do something about it, and at worst actually endorsed them. If that’s not the case, Manning-Jones asked, why are they present on the Register’s website and not on the online news site the New Haven Independent?

We spent a lot of time at last night’s meeting talking about the ideal of story comments being a constructive public forum that improves and supplements our journalism and helps the community sort through important public policy issues.

So another wake-up call came when West Haven resident Marianne Carolla spoke.

She take on story comments wasn’t about offensive things being posted, or about the Register going too far in “censoring” readers.

Carolla spoke about a forum that a New Haven Register reporter covered where a public official made statements, and then a group of citizens spoke at length with an opposing viewpoint. The story that was published contained only the public official’s side of the conversation, she said, even though the reporter interviewed citizens present and heard their testimony.

Carolla said she did not use our online story comments to weigh in on the topic that day because she felt the “deck was stacked” against her. Rather than the open invitation that the newsroom perceives story comments to be, this reader’s perception of bias in our reporting and editing conjured a door that was slammed shut.

Was that reporter biased? Did they screw up the coverage of that event? Maybe, or maybe the citizen testimony she was referring to was not central to the topic the reporter was there to cover. Or maybe the reporter had half an hour to write the story before deadline.

Meeting Carolla reinforced my belief in the “Fact Check” box we have placed at the bottom of every story, and our recent launch of a blog that handles corrections more transparently and explains how we’ve handled Fact Check reports. We can build trust the more we invite them into the process and the more we show readers “how the sausage is made” by being transparent about our reporting and editing process. That could include opening our story meetings to the public, like we do at The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe, or by sharing the list of stories we’re working on each day.

Most of the errors made in journalism are sins of omission. Missing context, the “more to the story.” Readers who know there’s more to the story can see bias or incompetence in those omissions when the fact is that reporters and editors don’t know about or have access to all the potential sources and angles of a topic. Opening the process and engaging with the community can both improve that journalism and build trust.

CLICK HERE for video of last night’s forum.

UPDATE: New Haven Register Managing Editor Mark Brackenbury makes an important point in the comments below. I write about missing context being the most common error we make in our reporting, and this post is missing a key piece of context about the New Haven Register’s story comment system.

For a long time – several years, actually – newsroom staff have felt strongly that the story comment system needed to change, for exactly the reasons spelled out by Yvonne Manning-Jones and more. Former New Haven Register Editor Jack Kramer pushed for this change, more than once, but it was either held up or blocked elsewhere in the structure of the company. Or they couldn’t agree on a plan to implement the change. Or something.

Understandably, some newsroom employees read my blog post as saying that the system wasn’t changed because they are white and didn’t care enough about racist comments to make the change. I’d be upset at that suggestion, too, if I had been fighting to get it changed for two years.

I was not intending to say that the 97 percent white newsroom didn’t want the racist story comments dealt with – they clearly did, from the top editor on down. I was saying that the absence of more people of color on the staff and in the leadership of the newsroom failed to provide the impetus to get it done. Impetus that would have overcome company structure and decision-making process.

Lack of newsroom diversity affects what we do in ways that we don’t realize. It’s a topic that deserves a lot more attention, and I’ll publish a separate post devoted to this topic soon.

UPDATE #2: I wrote a separate post about the question of newsroom diversity. It’s here.

Editors use social media to coordinate readers helping each other

29 Aug

Journal Register Company Director of Community Engagement Steve Buttry used the social media curation tool Storify today to show off how our editors and reporters used Twitter and Facebook – and Storify (so meta!) – to cover last week’s earthquake and Hurricane Irene.

Of particular interest was the work that the Trentonian and others did in using social media to coordinate efforts by readers to help other readers recover from the storm’s damage.