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Newsroom café update

Newsroom cafeWhen the Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn., opened its newsroom café more than six months ago, the paper found a whole new way to engage with its community. The café has allowed readers and reporters to interact on a level rarely seen in the newspaper industry, and the newsroom café is continuing to find new ways to connect with readers.

“More and more, you’ll see us using the newsroom café to engage our audience in tackling the big issues facing our community,”said publisher Matt DiRienzo in an email interview. “The old ‘editorial board meeting,’ where the publisher and a few editors would meet behind closed doors with special interest groups and then write an editorial, will morph into a collaborative series of public forums where we bring in experts or stakeholders on both sides of an issue and give the audience access to them to help reach some common ground or sort out the truth.”

Rare in the newspaper industry as a whole, the newsroom is creating new jobs and taking a look at its online content. DiRienzo added, “We are also pursuing curation as a vital job description within the newsroom. Recently, we created a full-time curator position to sort through and present for our audience the information and opinions that are being offered up by bloggers, hyperlocal startups and the audience themselves via social media. And finally, what we’re focused on is not how to change the newsroom café, but how it is changing us. Community engagement is pushing us to question all aspects of how we operate. A good example of that is online story [commenting]. We have heard loud and clear that we need to raise the tone of the conversation that is happening there. That means better technology and more engagement by staff in the day-to-day discussion.”

The planned changes could not have come about without readers embracing the newsroom café soon after its opening. “Readers and sources were amazed that we were opening our doors, literally, and inviting them into the process, that we were inviting them to participate in story meetings, and that we were being transparent in our approach to debating internal policies on topics such as corrections and online story comments,” DiRienzo said. “The newsroom café has greatly broadened our sources for stories, improving local journalism, and has emboldened readers and sources to come forward and point out errors when we make them, or where we’ve missed an important piece of context in a story.”

DiRienzo said residents have taken full advantage of the newsroom café’s other features. “We opened 134 years of newspaper archives to the public, with free access to a brand new microfilm machine. That has been one of the most popular attractions and has been used every single day since we opened,” he said. “Free public Wi-Fi is rare in Torrington, Conn., and that has been an attraction. Hundreds of people have taken free classes and workshops in our built-in newsroom classroom on topics such as social media, the Freedom of Information Act and even genealogy research. And finally, growing in popularity of late is our offer of free community meeting space to local organizations and nonprofits. And through that, we’ve met new sources and opened the door to potential community partnerships.”

The paper has even begun taking its efforts on the road with community engagement editor Kaitlyn Yeager, who will host weekly Community Café Days at different locations in Litchfield County beginning in July.

“The Register Citizen covers 19 rural communities in Northwest Connecticut, right up to the New York and Massachusetts borders,” DiRienzo said. “Some of the communities we cover are more than 45 minutes away from our office in Torrington. The newsroom café  is not just a physical space or novelty. It’s about a principle and mindset of community engagement. So of course we need to take the conversation to outlying communities as well.”

Steve Buttry, director of community engagement and social media at the Register Citizen’s parent company, Journal Register Co., said other papers within the company are working toward similar reader interaction. In an email interview, he said he recently conducted workshops at the Reporter in Lansdale, Pa., and the Times Herald in Norristown, Pa. Buttry also mentioned that the Delaware County Daily Times in Secane, Pa., offers a weekly live newsroom webcast. “We’re committed to community engagement in all locations, but we are encouraging each newsroom to engage in the right way for its staff, building and community,” he said.

–Lauren Cohen

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