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Community engagement: breaking down the newsroom wall

At the Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn., readers and citizens of the community can now walk into the newsroom off the street, bumping elbows with reporters and enjoying free Wi-Fi, coffee and possibly a muffin to the sounds of keyboards clicking and phones ringing. The paper’s new newsroom, complete with a new building, is an effort to bring the community into the newsroom and engage them.

The newsroom café officially opened its doors on Monday, featuring a community media lab, journalism school, and archives containing 120 years of community history. “The goal is engagement with the community, so we felt you can’t accomplish that just by inviting people into a traditional newsroom and say talk to a reporter – it’s kind of intimidating,” said Register Citizen publisher Matt DeRienzo. Instead, he said there had to be points of access to make the public feel welcome. “So you get people into the newsroom and there’s no walls between the people and the newsroom.”

Over 100 people wandered into the Journal Register Company-owned Register Citizen newsroom Monday to talk to reporters about their coverage, look at photos, use the Internet service or sit in on the open news meeting. Another 120 people watched the news meeting on a live stream from the paper’s website. “It was the first day, there was some novelty and a lot of attention to it but it was beyond out highest expectations,” DeRienzo said. While this may all be new to the Register Citizen, DeRienzo noted that back in the 1990’s when he first started in the business, community members used to walk into the paper he worked for at the time on a regular basis to offer comment or criticism. “That’s how you got your stories,” he said. “I don’t know what happened over the last 20 years that we closed ourselves off so much.”

The news café isn’t a totally original concept, although the Register Citizen has taken it to new depths. AnnArbor.com and Freehold InJersey have also experimented with a news café concept. The Washington Post sent reporters to cafés in D.C. this past summer to write stories about the everyday person.

Meanwhile, TBD.com was practically founded on its community engagement practices, although its coffeehouse editorial hours didn’t prove successful. Instead, their blogger network and regular engagement with the public through social media is their claim to fame. TBD has a blog network of over 200 community bloggers that the site aggregates and links to. Taking an aggressive stance on Twitter, they engage with the community, take news tips, complaints and suggestions, and watch for breaking news. They also have online polls and community engagement projects like their holiday ugly sweater competition.

As for the Register Citizen’s efforts, TBD community engagement director Steve Buttry thinks it’s a fantastic idea. “Even if it doesn’t work, which I think it will, that’s the kind of thing people should be trying,” he said.

For DeRienzo, engaging the community in an increasingly digital-first world makes sense. “Anyone with a Blackberry or an iPhone can shoot a house fire down the street – how can we not rub shoulders and engage with our audience?” he said.

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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