When we first announced plans to open The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe in December, the bulk of the criticism was centered on two themes.
From critics within the newspaper industry, primarily, we heard that it would be impractical, disruptive and somehow tainting of the “professional” process of journalism to allow the public to “look over our shoulders” while we work. There’s a whole slew of arguments knocking down that premise, but there’s also our experience to date, which for us, is more relevant and powerful.
From readers, one of the biggest concerns was that an “open newsroom” would open the door to special interest groups or individuals with pet causes having easy access to reporters and editors and therefore being more likely to influence (i.e., twist) their reporting.
My immediate answer to this was that people representing special interests, pet causes and axes to grind get their message to reporters and editors already. A newsroom that is not just “open,” but also welcoming, with an active agenda of community engagement, will start to balance that influence by hearing from and connecting with the audience as a whole. The more open we are, the more voices you’ll see represented in our reporting, and hopefully, the less chance there will be of missing or skewed context.
A building block of our model is that transparency builds trust. The public is invited to attend and participate in our daily story meetings, which are also live-streamed on RegisterCitizen.Com. When we faced an internal debate recently on guidelines for staff who moderate online story comments, we distributed, heard input and discussed a draft policy via social media and the web, leading up to a public meeting, also live-streamed, in the cafe’s classroom.
Which brings me back to those concerns about special interests having new-found or undue influence over journalists in an “open newsroom.”
Among many assumptions we’ve had to question in attempting to stay true to our “open” model is that old newspaper tradition of “the editorial board meeting.”
Since opening on Dec. 13, we haven’t had any.
Oh, we’ve had requests. But when you explain to the industry association, or, for example, the PR flack for an energy sector company fighting a zoning battle with local residents who called recently, that the public will be invited to listen in on – and ask questions – the value, to them, of an “editorial board meeting” is apparently diminished.
And that has been eye-opening.
What kind of influence have these closed-door meetings had on our reporting? Why would these sources prefer no meeting at all to one where the public can listen in and ask questions? Maybe they’ve gotten used to pushing their spin on editors and reporters and seeing it published without the hard questions or context that scrutiny by the audience would provide?
As we move forward into uncharted waters at The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe, I see potential for us (in the context of many other points of community engagement) to build a new kind of editorial board meeting, where, as media blogger Judy Sims recently envisioned, we “(facilitate) the coming together of individuals, organizations and governments to solve a city’s great problems …”
For newspapers with a “closed newsroom” (I think I’ll start referring to traditional print media models that way until Journal Register Company’s “digital first” philosophy is embraced by the rest of the industry) , it would be interesting to see the impact that some simple steps toward transparency would have.
Does the editorial on the energy bill, or sales tax exemptions, make note of the editorial board meeting the newspaper had a few days before with the trade association affected by the issue?
Even if you’re not inviting the public, why not list for your audience what “official sources” are getting this closed-door, formal access to your editors and reporters?
And if you won’t let the public in to those meetings, why not, at least, broadcast live (or even a taped but complete version) video on the web?