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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

Corrections, fact checking and accountability: Our new approach

26 Oct

We’ve talked a lot (and hopefully done a lot) over the past year about bringing more openness and transparency into the way we operate our newsrooms.

This week, we are launching new “Fact Check” blogs at our three daily newspapers in Connecticut with an aim of more transparency in how we handle errors and engaging readers in an ongoing conversation about our accuracy and approach to reporting.

I can’t think of a more important starting point for openness than how our reporters and editors handle mistakes and corrections, and we’ve taken some big steps this week to improve that process.

Last year, we launched a “Fact Check” box at the bottom of every story appearing on the New Haven Register, Middletown Press and Register Citizen websites. It was a simple but very visible statement of accountability to our readers and sources, inviting them to challenge the facts of our stories, to point out errors, to show us missing context.

Earlier this year, after the Washington Post did the same, but greatly improved the format, The Register Citizen switched to a longer-format version that encouraged readers to not just point out the error, but suggest ways that we could expand or improve the story, other sources we should talk to, etc. It also encourages readers to leave their name and email address so that we can follow up with more questions or confirmation that the error has been fixed. And it includes an “opt-in” asking readers if they would be willing for us to contact them as a potential source or fact checker on future stories about the topic in question.

This week, we added the improved, longer-form Fact Check to the New Haven and Middletown websites. We also have posted a detailed, written corrections policy on each of our sites.

Key parts of that policy include making lots of corrections (a comprehensive approach, from misspelled names to major errors), telling readers what we got wrong instead of just vaguely admitting a mistake, listing the correction at the bottom of the story in question instead of just quietly “fixing” the mistake on the web, and creating an easy place to find a listing of all corrections we make.

So now, in addition to being listed at the bottom of stories, corrections will live on “Fact Check” blogs – click here for New Haven Register, click here for the Middletown Press and click here for The Register Citizen. You can also find the corrections and blogs easily by typing NHRegister.Com/corrections, MiddletownPress.Com/corrections or RegisterCitizen.Com/corrections.

But the blogs will also be used to fill a key missing piece in our “Fact Check” program – transparency and communication on what happens after you submit one of those Fact Check reports. Up until now, it hasn’t been clear to people who submit a report whether it was ignored, acted upon, debated in the newsroom, or what. We intend to use the new blogs to explain what we do with these reports, including when we decide that a Fact Check report is unfounded and we stick by our original story.

We also want to peel back the curtain and be open with our entire readership about how often we are being challenged and on what.

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