As a journalist who has worked most of the past 14 years in online news, I’ve often noted the changing dynamic newsrooms have with our audience.
We are no longer focusing on reportage, or simply telling our audience the news – indeed, we are not just asking them to join the discourse and share their thoughts on a story – we’re asking them to help us report the news as it happens in the world around. I’ve watched community newsroom initiatives popping up at traditional news organizations and wondered not only about the objectives of these projects, but also how they measure success. How does the type or size of community affect the level of engagement by the audience with the newsroom?
Winning the first Michener-Deacon Fellowship for journalism education in 2012 gave me an opportunity to do a “deep dive” into research about community newsrooms and citizen journalism. I fully submerged myself in a community that means so much to me: at Carleton’s journalism school, with students who will be on the vanguard of change in our industry. During the winter term of 2013, I was thrilled as a journalist-in-residence to teach a multimedia journalism class to third-year undergraduate students here at Carleton, where I attended journalism school 14 years ago.
The time and funds from the Michener Awards Foundation allowed me to travel to Manitoba, to step inside two successful community newsrooms with two completely different approaches to engaging with their communities. I met Brad Kehler and Corwyn Friesen, the two founders of MySteinbach.ca, a community news site that features local news in and around Steinbach, Manitoba. Their site is community written by bloggers, and local writers. Neither Kehler nor Friesen are traditional journalists. They saw a need, and started MySteinbach.ca as a hub for “all things Steinbach.” Their tightly-knit community with strong family values embraced it, signing up to advertise on the site, enrolling in social media sessions and reporting on local events.
An hour north of Steinbach, the Winnipeg Free Press has found a different way to connect with its audience. In setting up the News Café, the Free Press is serving up what Dan Lett, a political columnist with the Free Press, calls “random acts of journalism … with a coffee.” The Free Press made me think about content. I admit that going into this research project, I thought of content as text, words – a 500-word story on a neighbourhood development, for example.
But content from the community comes in many forms. Postmedia’s Gastropost.ca most often receives contributions from Toronto’s food-loving community in the form of photos and quick posts.
The Winnipeg Free Press’ News Café taught me about engagement beyond a written story. It opens the doors to its audience with public interviews and local events, and in return the audience becomes a part of the editorial process, asking questions in an interview, sharing thoughts. Lett argued that this kind of engagement will lead to the audience to care more about the news around them. The Free Press is involved in a second community initiative with the Winnipeg Foundation – the Community News Commons.
In this grassroots initiative, the community takes part in the newsgathering process about its neighbourhood in a traditional manner, through text, photos, video, etc – but the journalists involved with the CNC began the program by teaching its audience how to do this. Sessions include how to write a lead, achieving balance in a story, personal objectivity, as well as the technical skills necessary to report for the web.
While the journey to Winnipeg reminded me to think about the different kinds of content a community can produce, my trip to Torrington, Connecticut highlighted the benefits of allowing the audience in. Torrington’s Register Citizen quite literally has an open door policy – its front doors are unlocked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, and the public is welcome to walk in, get a coffee and a pastry at its Newsroom Café, use the free public wifi (rare in the city), access its archives dating back to 1812, or talk to working reporters.
There are no security guards at the Register Citizen; there is no front desk and receptionist to stop folks from walking about. Sometimes this means a street person may come in for a few hours to get warm, other times it means a story tip. For the Register Citizen, this has meant a broad reach in its community. While it is a much smaller newspaper than its main competitor, the Republican-American, it has six times the digital audience, with a network of community bloggers. It has remained relevant and connected to the community it serves. This connectivity is not something that can be easily measured in terms of dollars and cents. Newsroom managers in Edmonton and York, Pennsylvania encouraged me not to look at straight returns in terms of revenue lines on a budget.
Postmedia’s R&D department spends roughly $25,000 a month for The Edmonton Journal to manage its Capital Ideas project, which holds regular events and gatherings for Edmonton’s entrepreneurs. While this hasn’t resulted in big dollars back, it has secured the news organization as the go-to place for business information. It has made it relevant.
York’s Daily News mobile community unit, The NewsVroom, similarly owns high school sports in its region and is quickly dominating the local market in other spheres as well. The Daily News’ Managing Editor, Randy Parker, urged me to think of the NewsVroom as much a marketing drive as it is editorial initiative.
Community engagement comes in many forms, community editors at CBC.ca and The Globe and Mail reminded me. While they don’t have traditional community newsrooms set up, they find other ways to engage with their audiences, and learn from them.
It has been a fantastic, productive four months to dive deep into these initiatives that involve the audience. I’ve written countless blog posts on the subject; I’ve been a visiting lecturer in four undergraduate and graduate journalism and communications classes; I’ll be giving a formal lecture to the School of Journalism and Communication in the fall of 2013; and I’ll be reporting my findings in a report for the Canadian Journal of Communication.
I will also be hosting a ‘lunch and learn’ at the Ottawa Citizen when I return to its newsroom in May.
In addition, I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on community newsrooms with representatives from the Winnipeg Free Press, Edmonton Journal and Postmedia Labs at the upcoming Canadian Association of Journalists conference in Ottawa in early May.
After examining community newsrooms and how they can be incorporated into a traditional news organization, I’ve come to the following conclusions:
1. Host the conversation, but don’t try to start it. Rather than try to ‘create’ a new community, news organizations need to look at existing community groups, and see how they can become a destination or hub. Gastropost does a good job of this – tapping into Toronto’s already vibrant existing community of food lovers.
2. Size (and geography) matters. Newsrooms need to remember this when thinking about the communities they’d like to cater to. MySteinbach.ca has a successful community hub because it’s catering to a city of 13,000 people, with close ties to one another. A major news organization in a major city – or national reach – should consider trying to appeal to one or two groups within the region.
3. Think beyond text when planning for community contributions. News organizations aren’t likely to get the 500-word story from a community newsroom on the transit committee at City Hall. What they are more likely to see are photos, video, blog posts, opinion pieces and quick dispatches. These submissions are just as (if not more) valuable than straight reporting, and are a way to connect with the audience. If newsrooms are looking for a more traditional story, an editor or reporter will need to give this information context and build a story package around it.
4. The community would love to be trained. It goes without saying that there are certain skills that journalists bring to the table: the technical ones of course, but also the objective and ethical thinking that is behind every well-balanced article. The Winnipeg Foundation’s Community News Commons and Torrington, Connecticut’s Register Citizen have seen a huge uptake on their training sessions for would-be contributors.
5. Don’t see this as solely an editorial exercise. This is not about getting more content for your site/app/newspaper. Again, and again, community newsroom leaders stated that the connection they are making with the audience is more important than the content. This connection means the audience is more engaged in the process, the product – and the news that’s being covered. Randy Parker at the York Daily News is blunter about his NewsVroom, a mobile community initiative: It’s a marketing endeavour.
6. Successful community partnerships can’t be measured in dollars and cents. Of the community newsrooms I’ve studied, only one was making a profit – the small news hub in Steinbach, Manitoba. That said, none of the news organizations consider their community newsroom initiatives a failure: they all see their projects as successful marketing initiatives that have influence over how the community perceives their news organizations, and a means to remain relevant to the audience. There is value in letting the audience in on the news gathering and news reporting process.
7. Put on a lab coat and experiment. When setting out to create a community newsroom, a news organization needs to designate a period of time for trial and error. It must be ready to try different things, accept that there will be mistakes and be ready to make them, ready to learn from them. A news organization should take inspiration from other community newsrooms, keeping in mind that a project that works for one community will likely not for work for all, and it should consider customizing its community initiative to be in line with its audience.
Of course, it was important to me to serve Carleton University’s community also.
More than 150 people attended an event I organized at Carleton in late March. Partnering with the Canadian Journalism Foundation, the School of Journalism and Communication hosted two panels to discuss how social media is changing politics and political reporting. [You can read about it here and here.]
I was thrilled to see so many students attend this event, and the coverage it achieved for Carleton’s journalism school. In addition, it was attended by many from Ottawa’s journalism community.
Being the first Michener-Deacon Fellow for journalism education was exhilarating. It’s always exciting to be the first person on new ground – I felt the same way as the first hire at globeandmail.com. I intended to set the bar very high for future winners of this fellowship, and I hope they will recognize the importance of this opportunity in that they have a chance to make a positive impact the lives of students.
I’m grateful that the Deacon family has chosen to support this fellowship, and I’d like to thank them and the Michener Foundation for understanding the value of an initiative that focuses on journalism education. As the news ecosystem continues to evolve, it’s important to invest in the journalists of the future.
I’d also like to thank the many volunteers at the Michener Foundation who wade through fellowship applications and make the awards night at Rideau Hall so very special.
This fellowship has been an experience I will never forget, thank you so much for this opportunity.
Michener-Deacon Fellowship Report