For the citizens of Torrington, Connecticut, the local newsroom of The Register Citizen is as readily accessible as any other coffee shop, offering free Wi-Fi, computers, and open discussion between journalists and readers Monday through Saturday. As we previously reported, Journal Register Co.’s The Register Citizen opened its Newsroom Café in December 2010 as a way to include members of the community in the local journalism process, embracing digital-first policies in accordance with CEO John Paton’s vision for the company.
Readers are invited to sit in on editorial meetings, which are held at 4 pm each day and live-streamed online, as well as contribute story ideas and inform editors of article corrections needed. The newsroom also has a Community Media Lab, which provides workspace for local bloggers, citizen journalists and researchers, as well as offering full access to The Register Citizen archives.
Editors Weblog spoke with Matt DeRienzo, Connecticut Group Editor for Journal Register Co., about The Register Citizen’s digital-first initiatives and how the Newsroom Café project has fared so far.
Much of the decision to create the Newsroom Café was based on the desire to foster open dialogue between the journalists and readers, both online and in person, DeRienzo explained. DeRienzo said he thinks open journalism is not only a general trend for the media industry but also an essential one for newspapers to stay relevant.
“A newsroom café is one manifestation of an overall bigger philosophy,” he said. “The issue, really, is that the web has empowered people to network with each other, without us,” he said, “and that is the reason for open journalism in a nutshell.”
The newsroom café in Torrington incorporates many of the necessary characteristics of open journalism, especially in terms of establishing readers’ trust, DeRienzo said.
“To have a relationship with someone you need to trust each other, and to have trust you need to be transparent,” he said. “That’s why we opened our doors.”
DeRienzo said one of the biggest improvements the paper has seen is the strengthening of its corrections policy, especially the addition of an online fact-check box. Readers use the fact-check box not only to report errors but also to offer tips that help journalists understand the context of a story, so it becomes a sort of crowdsourcing mechanism in itself, he said.
The Register Citizen based its fact-check box on The Washington Post’s model, which links to a Google document where numerous questions regarding corrections and tips are listed. The Google doc also includes an option for the user to input his/her name and phone number to be contacted as a source for future articles on the topic, DeRienzo said.
The open corrections policy has emboldened people to reach out and communicate with Register Citizen journalists, he said.
“We’ve gotten much more participation in terms of people correcting our mistakes,” he said. “It’s improved our journalism by widening our sources in incredible ways. By being so open, people feel that they can approach us. It’s improved our journalism by helping us with accuracy, instead of operating in silence and secrecy."
While online engagement is high, however, the physical newsroom hasn’t been getting dozens of participants on a daily basis.
“We haven’t had a ton of participation in terms of volume,” he said. However, “when we do, it tends to be very, very high quality, and it tends to be specifically on something that they’re concerned about.”
“The fact is that people aren’t naturally obsessed with our process,” he said. “They’re going to engage with us on their terms.”
Social media is another important part of The Register Citizen's engagement strategy, he said, especially for sharing breaking news. He said that Register Citizen journalists break news via Twitter, and that they are not required to check in with editors beforehand.
“We don’t have special rules for the telephone or the fax machine,” he explained, “we’re not going to have special rules for social media. Use it, don’t be an idiot, and be respectful.”
DeRienzo said the editors also link to local blog content, partnering with local bloggers to provide readers with access to as much material as possible. In addition, the newspaper has a full time curator, who creates a list of RSS feeds for the lab and links to news-worthy or otherwise interesting content on the website, he said.
“There’s this whole world of stuff that our audience and competitors and others are doing that is available to our readers, and why would we deprive them of that?” he said. “And who’s better to curate that than we are?
Responsible for finding and training blog partners is the engagement editor, who also organizes newsroom workshops, which cover everything from social media to storytelling journalism to the Freedom of Information Act. Journal Register Co. also recently launched its Digital Ninja School in February, in which newspaper employees are paid to attain further digital training.
DeRienzo said the editors are always trying to engage people in the community with both the training workshops and the atmosphere of the Newsroom Café itself.
“If you want people to come into your newsroom—again they’re not obsessed with your process—you need to have a reason for them to be there,” he said. “We try to build a continuum of engagement.”