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?