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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

Newsrooms join forces to prepare for Hurricane Irene

26 Aug

There’s nothing like a looming major natural disaster (in a state not used to major natural disasters) to test a new model of viewing Journal Register Company’s journalists in Connecticut as members of one big newsroom instead of disconnected silos.

It also really helps when Steve Buttry is your company’s director of community engagement. He has used his experience leading a newsroom in flood-ravaged Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2008 to teach journalists about covering natural disasters. Among many tips and pieces of advice Steve has offered us on the fly was to have everyone who is going to be involved in this weekend’s hurricane coverage read Brian Stelter‘s account of his coverage of the tornado in Joplin earlier this year.

On Thursday morning, we kicked into high gear after hearing that Hurricane Irene is on a path similar to the Hurricane of 1938, which killed more than 600 people and is considered the worst natural disaster in the history of Connecticut.

Editors at our three dailies, the New Haven Register, Middletown Press and The Register Citizen, along with weekly editors at the Litchfield County Times on Connecticut’s shoreline, exchanged dozens of emails, phone calls and Twitter messages Thursday divvying up coverage of Governor Dannel Malloy’s press updates, the latest tracking from the National Weather Service and other aspects of emergency management preparations.

Reporters throughout the state were asked to start asking local officials about areas in their communities that are historically prone to flooding or tree damage. New Haven Register Entertainment Editor Jordan Fenster compiled them on a Google Doc spreadsheet, and from her office in Torrington, Register Citizen Community Engagement Editor Kaitlyn Yeager started syncing them up to a Google Map.

The result was a series of embeddable maps covering our entire coverage area in Connecticut that visualized high-risk flooding areas for readers to avoid, as well as locations of emergency shelters and evacuation routes.

Meanwhile, New Haven Register staff were lining up a live online chat with Dr. Mel Goldstein, the beloved Connecticut TV weather man who announced his retirement only a few days before the type of event that can be the highlight of a meteorologist’s career. That’s scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Friday and will be embedded on Journal Register Company websites throughout the state.

Weekend plans (the worst of Irene is now predicted to hit Connecticut during the day on Sunday) include an “all hands on deck” approach to staffing, but with designated editors clearly responsible for handling specific areas such as SMS text message alerts (something we are promoting heavily since the state expects widespread power outages, possibly cutting off Internet access for many), curation of readers’ reports on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, handling the “rewrite” desk that will field phone and text message reports from reporters in the field, and processing and presenting staff and user-submitted photos and video.

And the advantage of acting as one statewide newsroom, of course, is that one person can be marshaling SMS alerts or scouring YouTube for multiple sites, whereas those functions would require diversion from field reporting or likely not even happen in some parts of our coverage area if everyone was operating independently.

Newsroom staff from across the state are also working together to make sure that we have a row of Netbooks with batteries charged, Droids and Flip cameras to put in the hands of reporters, and of course, rain gear. And to get that print edition out, a row of desktop computers are being loaded with all the necessary templates, logos and ad files, and will be driven to an alternative printing site should the New Haven Register lose electricity.