Conclusions on community newsrooms – what I’ve learned during my fellowship research

fireworksI’ve spent the past four months researching community newsrooms and citizen journalism while a journalist-in-residence as a Michener-Deacon Fellow at Carleton University – and loved every minute of teaching and research.

But now my time is up. At the beginning of May, I’ll be moving on to my next challenge in the Ottawa Citizen newsroom. Bring on the adrenaline rush of daily news.

As this fellowship draws to a close, I’ve come to the following conclusions about community newsrooms:

  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.
exterior
The News Cafe’s wintry look.

Successful initiatives in Winnipeg

The 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. (I wrote a blog post profiling their initiative here.)

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.” (You can read my blog post on the News Café here.)

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.

Postmedia Labs' Toronto headquarters.
Postmedia Labs’ Toronto headquarters.

Content isn’t just text

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. [Read more about Postmedia Labs and its Gastropost.ca initiative in this blog post.)

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 community wants skills

The Free Press is involved in a second community initiative with the Winnipeg Foundation – the Community News Commons. (You can read about that project in detail in this blog post.)

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.

The Register Citizen invites the community in.
The Register Citizen invites the community in.

Allowing the audience in the newsroom

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.  (Read my full report on Torrington in this blog post.)

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, iiiit has six times the digital audience, with a network of community bloggers. It has remained relevant and connected to the community it serves.

A Capital Ideas audience member asks a question of the panel.
A Capital Ideas audience member asks a question of the panel.

Measuring the R.O.I. of a community newsroom

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 Record 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 Record’s Managing Editor, Randy Parker, urged me to think of the NewsVroom as much a marketing drive as it is editorial initiative.

Engagement can take many forms

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.

Receiving the Michener-Deacon Fellowship from Canada's Governor General David Johnston in 2012. Photo: Jean Levac/Ottawa Citizen
Receiving the Michener-Deacon Fellowship from Canada’s Governor General David Johnston in 2012. Photo: Jean Levac/Ottawa Citizen

On a personal note…

I’d like to thank all the people who took time to talk to me about their community newsroom initiatives, you made this topic so interesting to study.

Thanks also to Carleton University’s Journalism School – you are near and dear to me, and I love being an instructor and graduate of this school. Chris Waddell, you have been such a huge help during this project. Thank you.

I’m also grateful that the Deacon family has chosen to support this fellowship. 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.

This fellowship has been an experience I will never forget, it has meant so much to have this opportunity.

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