Torrington’s Register Citizen: Using community to remain relevant

RegisterCitizen_logo

Matt DeRienzo has welcomed the community into his newsroom, unlocking the doors and letting them walk right in.

This hasn’t led to any security concerns, and he has only had to call the police once – when he spotted “a kid watching porn on one of our computers, and refused to leave,” DeRienzo said. (I was lucky enough to join some journalists from the Cape Cod Times for a tour of his Newsroom Café in Torrington, Connecticut  in March.)

Opening the doors means learning a lot about your community, he explained. He’s had a homeless man come in to use Google earth on one of the public computers to find a place to sleep.

When some of his staff complained about the homeless using the space in the winter, DeRienzo said he pushed back. “I will address the issue if there is a smell, but not the fact there is a homeless person here.”

Besides, he added “it’s noisiest when my kids are here.”

DeRienzo opened the Register Citizen‘s News Café in December, 2010. To do this, he moved his newsroom to a new location (an abandoned ball bearing and sewing machine parts factory) in downtown Torrington, with an eye to a place that could host a space “for coffee and pastries.”

In this setting, the front door is unlocked, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays. There is no reception or security desk. But it is one of three locations in town with free wifi.

The public can – and has – walked in and talked to a reporter about a story. Sometimes this is a good thing, DeRienzo said, it can result in story leads. Other times, people have to be reminded they’ve made their point, and that reporters have a job to do.

In setting up the café, the DeRienzo, who is the Northeast Regional Editor at Digital First Media, said he wanted to “confront the issue of being relevant in the region” head on.

The newsroom's public computers and free wifi are rare in Torrington.
The newsroom’s public computers and free wifi are rare in Torrington.

The Community

Torrington is a city of 40,000 people (it boasts 27 different pizza places, DeRienzo pointed out). It’s a bedroom community.

The Register Citizen has 20 people in its newsroom, and relies on a  regional copydesk for its print product.

Where the RegisterCitizen is most relevant is online: Its 7,000 daily print circulation makes it a second-place finisher to the larger Waterbury Republican-American. Despite this, the Register Citizen has a digital audience that is six times its print distribution.

DeRienzo was inspired when Jeff Jarvis came to speak to a group of editors at the RegisterCitizen’s parent company, Digital First media. Jarvis challenged editors to think outside the box. “’What if you turned your newsroom into a newscafe?’,” DeRienzo said Jarvis had asked them.

DeRienzo was inspired and set about doing just that.

He wanted to move the direction of his news organization to the digital sphere, where most of his audience was anyway. But at the time, management wasn’t thinking digitally.

“It was once enforced that anyone who put more than three local stories online in a day would be fired,” DeRienzo said with a laugh.

DeRienzo explains his open newsroom concept.
DeRienzo explains his open newsroom concept.

Opening up the newsroom

The concept of his newsroom is to be open like the web itself, he explained, in creating a space where people can connect.  He wanted a newsroom that was a cross between a coffee shop and a library.

“This had to be coffee, pastries… it had to be low key and low risk,” DeRienzo said.

When he first opened up the space to the public, DeRienzo thought people would be really interested in seeing how journalists work. Instead, he found their interest was in having free access to the paper’s microfilm and archives that date back to 1812 and wifi.

“People are not as obsessed with what we do, they are busy with their own lives…. Some people from small businesses will come to fill out reports, or people will use the space for tutoring.

“Basically this is a way for us to engage with our community, even at the most passive level. ‘Hey, just come use our space’,” he said.

One of the Register Citizen photos from Torrington's 1955 flood.
One of the Register Citizen photos from Torrington’s 1955 flood.

On the walls of the newsroom café hang Register Citizen photos of a massive flood that hit Torrington in 1955, causing half of Main Street to be washed away. When the café opened, DeRienzo invited the public to see these pics, attracting an older audience.

The Register Citizen isn’t afraid to host conversation on controversial community debates. When minors were bullying a rape victim online, the news organization called them out. The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review picked up the story.

DeRienzo has also started asking the community to start covering itself: a local blogger is more qualified to cover high school girls’ soccer than one of his reporters, he said.  (That said, DeRienzo has found that the blogging community in Torrington is much smaller than compared to New Haven, Connecticut.)

While the Register Citizen may spotlight something a local blogger has posted – DeRienzo doesn’t ask them to blog on his platform, but links out – he doesn’t spotlight anything that hasn’t been verified or isn’t from a trusted source.

Events

The Register Citizen has had a few events to bring people into the newsroom: it  held a series of classes on the state’s Freedom of Information Act, on how to write well and tell a story. It has also hosted a session on geneology.

A happy side effect to the Register Citizen’s group sessions on how to use social media to promote your business: people left the talk and walked directly to the newsroom’s online advertising sales team to place an ad.

“We became a trusted knowledgeable source,” DeRienzo said.

Staffing/Resources

DeRienzo readily admitted that staffing his community newsroom hasn’t been ideal.

His community engagement editor was excellent, but he hasn’t been able to replace her yet. Which he admitted has caused his news café to “lose a little momentum.”

The project has one full-time curator, who spends time building relationships with readers.

DeRienzo’s newsroom suffers a bit from its success: reporters who do well here tend to move on to bigger outlets. DeRienzo said at the time of his tour in March that seven of his nine general assignment reporters had only joined his newsroom in the past six months.

His desk structure was created for the web, with copy editors on staff 18 hours a day, seven days a week, acting as assignment editors as necessary. They handle all stories and video that come into the desk via email, and edit and post on the site, distribute through social media.

Section editors are gone – sections in the print product are determined by the regional editing team (this fact had some of the section editors at the Cape Cod Times shocked)

DeRienzo has open, online afternoon story meetings, but is careful about scoops and aware of what will be talked about in these meetings.

“Our competition is a healthy listener,” he said.

RegisterCitizen_signs
The Register Citizen also offers classes to the public.

Since opening up the digital newsroom, DeRienzo said his digital growth has been “phenomenal.”

Indeed, The Register Citizen has an increase  from 4 per cent digital revenue to 30 per cent in two years.

He looks for ad revenue from partnerships, display ads on the site, advertising on SMS and video. His team also looking at sponsorship arrangements for special content projects.

The café itself neither makes money nor loses it: the space is community space and all coffee and pastries are paid through self-serve cash boxes (similar to those you’d see on old on-the-street newspaper boxes).

Growth

In the future, the area is expected to see a lot more foot traffic: the region is building a $70-million courthouse in the parking lot across the street from the Register Citizen.

While some staff members lamented the loss of a parking space, DeRienzo saw this as opportunity for his newsroom – both in its ability to cover courts more easily and expanding the café, and partnering with a small restaurant.

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