The future of printed media has become a major political issue in countries like the United States or France, even being debated in ad-hoc committees set up by the legislative or the executive powers. Discussions along the Potomac or the Seine rivers have been focusing on the impact of Internet and new technologies, or on the need for state subsidies.
Meanwhile, on the Vltava in Prague, a group of editors and reporters working for PPF Media, the recently created division of insurance and consumer banking group PPF, is already opening new ways of covering a whole country in what may be a newsroom of the future. With other journalists for the moment based in four provincial towns from the Czech Republic, they are launching the so-called "hyperlocal weekly" Nase adresa ("our address"), which combines print and online journalism with particular efforts to sustain high professional standards and get closer to the readers.
"It can only work with well prepared journalists who will be trained in the Futuroom, our central newsroom," explains Roman Gallo, 44, director for PPF's media strategies and conceiver of the project. "We are also opening newscafés in our local bureaus, which will facilitate the contact between Nase adresa's journalists and the public, to enrich the content of our newspaper and of its webpages," adds Matej Husek, 33, director of news operations.
The newspoints, combining local newsrooms and Internet cafés in often small, rural towns, may be the most visible originality of this new undertaking. A few weeks before Nase adresa's launch, for instance, PPF Media's already hired staff had the chance to taste two products, the first print prototype of the weekly, and a cake likely to be served in the cafés. "The project represents a special challenge in terms of logistics, of room for storage, as we will be managing dozens of bistrot-Starbucks-like coffee shops in local newsrooms," comments Tomas Chejn, 41, the manager of PPF Media's branded cafés, a food specialist hired for his long time experience in quality catering. Petr Vitasek, 38, the director and chief editor for the Moravia region, based in the eastern Czech city of Olomouc, thinks this effort is worth the investment, because these "well located newspoints will be critical in getting Nase adresa's journalists to work closer to their readers."
But the whole project is innovative at other, multiple levels. To start with, for the first time a newspaper's birth is tightly associated to the creation of a multi-media training center - with several international partners including Google, Atex and the World Association of Newspapers/ World Editors Forum. The Futuroom will be a newsroom in charge of assisting and training in-house editors, some having no previous reporting experience, as much as a real life teaching field for future journalists. These will include a group of students within another partnership with Brno's Masaryk University, in the second largest Czech town.
Nase adresa's approach could also become a school case due to the organization of the newsroom. "I like how the Futuroom is shaped. Journalists are not confined to one theme, like health or education, but to a way of reporting, and I enjoy changing topics," says Vendula Krizova, reporter in the "Human approach team" and young (25) like many of her new colleagues. Adds Radim Klekner, 50, who joined the "Institutional team" - after working for 10 different newsrooms - to do researches on European Union institutions in particular: "Vertical structures dominate in traditional newspapers, while in Nase adresa it is more horizontal. In my case, for instance, I will be covering many European issues based on the Czech reality."
Klekner had some doubts initially, however, because he has been covering foreign news in the past 15 years. Why would he join a hyperlocal news project as an international editor, then? "There is a need for benchmarking with other European countries in all aspects of the Czech society, and with Nase adresa I will be able to give a EU presence in the remotest Czech villages", he believes. "Our role is to assess general issues like the lack of general practitioners in the country, compared to others, and connect them to specific cases brought up by the local newsrooms."
Local journalists with long intensive experience covering their community are also convinced they are working for an innovative project. Vitasek, in Olomouc, even tried a hyperlocal news concept on his own five years ago, called Olomoucky Tydenik. "It was a weekly published on Mondays and strong on local sports, like Nase adresa. We had to stop it after one year, but this time I have with me a 10-people team supported by PPF and by the Futuroom managers and trainers. Our office, in a central strategic area of Olomouc, will be a space for constant direct contact with readers and potential contributors."
Based on her 30 year experience in local journalism, Hana Vojtova, 52, the chief editor of the Teplice newspoint, in the north Bohemian city near the border with east Germany, also believes Nase adresa is a new improvement for community journalism: "We will get nearer to the people from the region, who are tired of politics and want to be informed on human interest stories," explains Vojtova, whose district is dramatically affected by problems like crime and unemployment. "We are going to cover better our readers's activities and their dreams!"
The project has attracted several other seasoned editors from all backgrounds, including Jiri Zavozda, 50, Nase adresa's head of the copy editing team. He just finished a seven year experience in major private television "Prima", as news editor-in-chief, after working more than a decade for national newspapers. "The TV experience was good because it teaches you how to write short, but I prefer print because it is less superficial," says Zavozda. There are other reasons why he joined the Futuroom. "I see my in-laws, who live in a little village in Moravia and who have only access to media not specifically targeted to them, national daily Mlada Fronta, newsweekly Tyden and the television. Only Nase adresa will inform them well on the Sunday afternoon firemen team's competitions, which are particularly popular in the Czech republic. We will get spectacular photos of fires being extinguished!"
Adds Peter Sabata, 48, the editor-in-chief responsible for the local newsroom: "I strongly believe in the hyperlocal level of information, with the combination of newspoints, and print, online journalism. The weekly will be a bridge from now to the near future, when everybody in the regions will be connected." Sabata just moved back to the Czech republic after eight years at the head of national Slovak paper Pravda's newsroom.
Other Nase adresa team members are particularly enthusiastic because of the new challenges specific to a project combining teaching and praxis, online and print journalism, so far never achieved at such a level. Ondrej Besperat, 31, who manages the photo-video team in a duo with veteran photojournalist Jan Silpoch, is well aware of the differences between shooting for a newspaper or for a website. Before joining the Futuroom, he was a photographer for national daily Hospodarske Noviny and then worked for Aktualne.cz, the successful, Internet-only Czech media outlet. "In printed media, you have to do one or two pictures a day, and you invest all your energy in the best one, while in Internet, you try more different perspectives as you know that several pictures are likely to be released for each story."
Besperat anticipates he is likely to spend two third of his time training reporters from the local newsrooms, at the beginning at least. "One of the main challenges will be to shoot sport with our standard high-end amateur cameras," he says. "The idea is not to have journalists who do everything all the time, but reporters who are multifunctional, able to provide good texts and images."
Nase adresa will also represent new challenges beyond the expertise usually expected from journalists, especially for the local chief editors who will have to look after a coffee shop part of their time. "Ten years ago I had a short experience working for Coca Cola, but this will be new because I am not at all a food and beverage specialist," laughs Vitasek, in Moravia. Krizova, who is glad to cover very diverse topics, is also ready for another type of special assignment as a young reporter. She will be asked to take care of children visiting the Futuroom - turned into a "Junioroom" or "media camp" - to learn how to write an article or produce a video footage.
PPF Media's project will be preparing new generations of journalists and not just showing new forms of getting and providing the news.
The Czech Republic is a country of 10 million people living in 14 regions subdivided in 75 districts in total. Until 20 years ago, only the government and Communist Party related entities could publish newspapers. This was also the case for the regional dailies, and for more local publications at district or town levels. German group Verlagsgruppe Passau took over most of them in 1990 and after, under its Czech branch Vltava-Labe-Press which currently controls over 10 weeklies and over 70 dailies called Denik ("daily", followed by the name of the concerned locality). Nase adresa will have no direct competitors except in a few cases, because its editions will typically cover areas of 20-30,000 people while Denik and its affiliates are designed for larger groups, of over 100,000 inhabitants on average.