What if a newspaper could unlock brand new areas of content and news coverage via citizen journalism, use this to connect with audience members yearning for information on these niche topics, and become a virtual and physical center of community information and discourse in the process?
Over the past year, the newspaper has recruited 50 local bloggers to be part of its Community Media Lab. (The Troy Record is a Journal Register Company paper, and it’s part of a company-wide effort that has led to a network of more than 1,000 local blogging partners.) According to Caprood, 90 percent of them are blogging for the first time due to the newsroom’s outreach and training of citizen journalists.
Others had “hobby blogs” with small audiences. After partnering with the Troy Record, which links to their posts from its website and promotes their work, they saw their traffic explode. One blogger said the big bump in traffic that the newspaper brought him and interaction from new readers moved his blog from off the radar screen to near the top of Google searches on the topic he is writing about.
Recognizing the gold mine of interesting content being produced by these new bloggers, and the newspaper office’s great location in the heart of downtown, Lewis, Caprood and Troy Record Publisher James Murphy started working on plans for a physical space showcasing these new community connections.
They turned an old circulation department office on the first floor of the Troy Record building into a community meeting room. And in early March, they scheduled their first public workshop. A local CPA who blogs about tax advice and is a member of the Community Media Lab put together a program on tax tips ahead of the April 15 Tax Day crush.
“Not one person came,” said Caprood. “That was our first learning experience.”
The newsroom adapted quickly, spreading word about their next event, a program on Irish genealogy presented by another Community Media Lab blogger, by reaching out to local organizations, posting it on message boards and publishing a story about it in the print and online editions of the Troy Record.
“We went from having zero to having 50 people show up two days later,” Caprood said. The room was packed to the point where there was just enough room for emergency exits.
Newsroom staff scrambled to take down names and email addresses of community members in attendance, seeing the opportunity to build something for the future.
The newspaper quickly scheduled a second night with the Irish history blogger, and another 50 people showed up, including a big contingent of new faces.
“Then we had a bass fishing forum,” Caprood said. Again, it was hosted by a Community Media Lab blogger. He shared secrets about the best local fishing spots, and even brought lures and equipment to show off.
Twenty-five people showed up this time. “Afterwards, people stuck around for half an hour looking at his lures and asking questions,” Caprood said.
A workshop on social media followed, with 20 community members attending in addition to Troy Record staff themselves, eager to learn more as they integrated Twitter and Facebook into their news reporting.
Last night, the newspaper’s longtime horse racing columnist presented a workshop on the ins and outs of handicapping and the unique features of the nearby Saratoga racetrack as compared to other tracks around the country.
Each workshop the Troy Record hosts is live-streamed on TroyRecord.Com, and Caprood is working on a landing page that will archive replays of each session for future viewing. He has also run live chats during the workshops to field questions and comments from people watching at home or from afar.
The newspaper has also opened the space up for use by community groups, including a recent work session by an organization attempting to promote regional tourism. Free public wifi has been added to the space, and a large flat-screen monitor installed for presentations.
“The end game right now is to get people down here into the building,” Caprood said. “I think the perception among community members has been that it’s not OK to just walk into our building and engage with a reporter or editor. We’re trying to get rid of that mindset.”
Caprood said there is opportunity all around for the newspaper to become more involved as a facilitator of community engagement and problem-solving.
In May, the Troy Record will host a forum with the heads of local theater companies, facilitated by a Community Media Lab blogger who writes about the arts.
The newspaper is planning to open up its first floor on city Election Day for community members who want to watch the votes be tallied and participate in live-streamed commentary and reaction.
Caprood said the newspaper wants to be a resource for the growing number of neighborhood-specific organizations who are attempting to revitalize Troy.
Tonight is the monthly “Troy Night Out,” where businesses stay open late and art exhibits are hosted throughout the downtown.
And in a symbol of literally being more “open” than ever before, the newspaper is participating for the first time in the four-year history of the event. It will host a lecture and exhibit of photos taken in the aftermath of 9/11 by former Gov. George Pataki’s official photographer.
Tomorrow, the Troy Record newsroom is crowdsourcing an effort to document a citywide Earth Day cleanup. Neighborhood leaders are sending in “before and after” pictures and videos that will be mapped out on TroyRecord.Com as a display of what a community working together can accomplish in one day.
Murphy said that the good will these kind of outreach projects and creativity have generated for the paper has been significant.
“When I first got here as publisher, people asked about the newspaper like they were talking about a funeral because of our company’s recent bankruptcy and cutbacks over the years,” Murphy said. “Now it’s nothing but positive feedback for what we are doing for the community. The buzz has been terrific and it builds every month, and the result has been significantly larger audience for both our digital and print products.”
“People are noticing,” Caprood said.
Other newspapers attempting to figure out “community engagement” should take notice, too.