What journalists can learn from weeklies

I was reading the DigiDave blog, and he was mulling around an idea that he notes others have thought of as well: What if newsrooms had a cafe?

He describes a small area that’s a public space. Readers could stop, chat, have a cup of Joe or even search the Web. ” You may just be hanging out – but perhaps you’ll end up in a news story!” he writes.

The thing is: The place he describes exists. It exists at hundreds, perhaps thousands, of newsrooms across the country.

What he describes is a weekly newspaper.

I had the good fortune of starting my 20-year career as a journalist at a weekly newspaper, the Wallkill Valley Times in 6,000-resident Walden, N.Y. We had three reporters, one editor and produced two weeklies. Once a week we actually had to roll wax on the back of layout sheets before they went to press.

But we also had this cafe feel that DigiDave is talking about. Readers felt very comfortable storming in and screaming about the latest editorial or sitting down, coffee in hand, spreading the latest gossip. As a reporter for a weekly, you’re tied into the community so tightly because everything is news: a new sign in front of the hardware store, a huge pumpkin grown in someone’s back yard.

Journalists tend to think of readers as this monolithic giant, and we bang our heads against walls trying to figure out what this mysterious it wants. At weeklies, readers are individuals with names and families and mortgages to pay.

Sure, as soon as I put in my year at weekly, I skedaddled to a daily never to return to a weekly again. But I learned something there. I learned how to connect with readers. At a weekly, it’s survival. I remember being required to produce upwards of 15 stories a week. No Pulitzer Prize winners among them, but I knew my townsfolk, and they knew me.

I’m not suggesting all newsrooms have to do is start covering the zoning board of appeals and the Red Hat Society, and everything that’s failing about our business will be hunky-dory. It’s not as easy as that. I truly believe we need to really change our product, understand connecting with readers through the interactive Web and figure out a way for news organizations to make money on the Internet.

Carve a plan in your community

But I do think many daily journalists could learn something from the coffee chats at a weekly. Many weeklies carve a place in their communities that many dailies can only envy. Far too few daily reporters today could produce the contact information for a dozen real people — parents, teachers, doctors, mechanics — whom they could call in a hurry on deadline for a breaking news story. That’s a shame.

And as DigiDave points out, newsrooms have become detached from the people they cover. He tried to just walk into to chat with journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle, and he couldn’t.

I’d bet his experience would be the same at daily newspapers across the nation. And, yes, there are reasons for security. Journalists piss people off; they potentially could be at risk.

But it’s hard to connect with readers through a steel door, armed with a security guard. I like the newsroom cafe idea, though I realize newsrooms have no money for extra stuff these days. It reminds me of when I worked in bureau offices at my newspaper. The gadflies walked right in, bringing their stories with them. Sure, many wasted our time, but many didn’t.

Journalists don’t need coffee to do this. They just need to get out and meet real people. I had a wise editor once who let me go on a “wandering day,” while I was covering the suburbs of Syracuse. I spent a whole day driving my patchwork of rural towns, stopping in the bar/diners that dotted the landscape and chit-chatting with village clerks whose jobs were so part time they didn’t even have offices. I came home with three ideas for  stories that ended up on the front page.

To me connecting with readers, hearing their ideas, involving them in the reporting process is just good journalism. You can do it in person; you can do it online. Preferably, you’ll do both.

What do you think?

Gina

14 thoughts on “What journalists can learn from weeklies

  1. Love your ideas about this Gina! As a daily blogger, I need to stay connected with my readers constantly – even if my “walk around the neighborhood” is through cyberspace, to go and check out their blogs.

  2. Donalyn,

    Love your walk the neighborhood example. That’s perfect.

    Glad to see you on my “other” blog.

    Haven’t forgotten you for my Family Life guest blog. Got swamped with responses (a great thing!). I’ll give you a heads up when I post yours.

    Take care.

    Gina

  3. The weekly where I worked, Creative Loafing (Tampa), sponsors many events that connect reporters with the community: monthly beer clubs, wine tastings, a multimedia art show, concerts.

    But it was outside the context I think you’re talking about: People didn’t show up to chat with the editorial staff; they were there to drink and have a good time, while the rest of the CL crew mingled among themselves.

    I like the idea of a newsroom cafe, but I wonder if it might have to be more formalized to get the kind of interaction you desire: Perhaps setting up weekly get-togethers at a popular coffee shop each morning where readers are encouraged to sit down with the staff, bring their complaints, concerns, stories, etc.

    That could then tie into a community blog dedicated to this reader interaction. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be written by a reporter; a reader could do it just as well. From this central hub you could build a series of neighborhood blogs written by your readers, who, maybe by virtue of attending the weekly meetings, would produce interesting, informative posts reflecting their feelings of investment in a newspaper dedicated to their community.

  4. Anthony,

    Is this what you mean by more formalized?

    “Put it in the vast space created when the press disappeared. Bring some of the reporters and desks down to the café to be available to the café customers. The café would be a place to drink coffee and tea and have a bagel – for a fee of course. But more importantly it would be a gathering place for conversation and experiencing the news firsthand gathered around a news desk.
    Some facilitated method would probably be needed to allow organized group discussion led by the desk reporter of the hour. Reporters and columnists would be regularly scheduled to the café desk. These sessions could be taped and played on large screens in the café or broadcast via radio or video to other café locations or even a local cable channel outlet. Clearly there would be advertizing opportunities, but the business model needs further defined.

    Such an idea could be adapted to ‘sports news pub’ venue within the pressroom space with beer on tap. A customer could come in to hear and banter with their favorite sports columnist. Other venues could be developed (the press space left vacant is huge) such as the ‘political news cigar bar’ or the ‘cultural news winery’. All of these possibilities would have revenue generating potential and could be expanded to other spaces in the community beyond the pressroom.”

  5. Chas,

    Yes, this is very much in line with what I’d conceived. (Guess I should have read your link in the comment above mine).

    I especially like the idea of creating multiple meeting spaces according individual beats and having these meetings held within the newspaper’s own space. In my conception, I hadn’t considered this because the paper I worked for doesn’t have the available space to accommodate this kind of plan, and so would have to find an outside venue.

  6. Anthony,

    Available space would certainly be a concern for many newspapers. I know that definitely would have been a problem at several of the newspapers where I worked/interned. I really think two keys for newspapers down the road will be to continue improving their Web sites and to connect with the readers on a more personal level instead of just the old letters to the editor.

    You make some great points. Please feel free to provide feedback/comments on some of the items posted at scoopingthenews.blogspot.com. Your feedback would be greatly appreciated!

  7. In the 1970s, the Chicago Sun-Times opened the Mirage bar as part of an investigation into corrupt city inspectors. Maybe they should have kept it going.

    I know that a lot of newspapers tightened their security even more after the Carl Drega shooting spree in New Hampshire in 1997, which ended at a newspaper office.

    But I love the idea of the news “office” in the diner, coffee shop, café. With today’s mojos and wi-fi, it might be easier than ever to do.

    A good mental exercise might be: What if you sold your press and building; how would you cover your community?

  8. Chas,

    Love your blog post. You really develop the idea. Like the beer on tap. That would draw people in.

    Anthony,

    Sounds like you worked at a cool weekly. I like the idea of sponsoring events, and bringing readers there. It has a lot of logistics to work out, but it has so much potential.

    And I agree that you need to formalize a bit (as Chas outlines) to make it work — both for readers and the paper.

    To me, telling people stuff in person is just another way of conveying news. On my beat, parenting, I suggested having parenting classes right at the paper (how to potty train your kids, etc.) We bring in the expert. We supply the space. Readers get their information from us — and we write about their experiences in a story, blog, etc.

    Thanks for all the ideas and expanding the concept so thoughtfully.

    – Gina

  9. Brian,

    Great point about the reporter going to the people, instead of bringing the people to the paper.

    Reporters don’t need to be in the office. They could set up shop at Panera or Starbucks. With wifi everywhere plus cell phones, flip video cameras, etc., they could report, write, blog, upload video or audio right from the coffee shop and be available to folks.

    At first, it would be odd. But if every day, Joe reporter is at Panera, eventually he’d get to know the regulars. Or you could promote that he’s there. Might lessen productivity unless you consider connecting with readers part of a reporter’s job, as I do.

    – Gina

  10. Pingback: Journalism Business Idea - the Newsroom Cafe at Klintron’s Brain

  11. Great info you have here, your site’s got a lot of great things to check into. Some people really don’t care about connecting with their readers though, just about views and money and fame and crap. :/

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