We watchers of media — analysts, theorists, pundits, what you will — make assumptions about journalism that have become, along the way, tenets: Openness and transparency will engender trust…. The process of journalism matters as much as the product…. Engagement is everything…. Etc. We often treat those ideas as general truths, but more accurately they’re simply theories — notions that speak as much to the media environment we’re hoping to create as to the one we currently have.
In that respect, one of the most interesting media outfits to watch — in addition to, yes, the Googles and Twitters of the world — is a chain of community newspapers dotted along the East Coast. The Journal Register Company, which declared bankruptcy in 2009, has been attempting over the past year to reverse its fortunes with a “digital first” approach to newsgathering that involves a healthy does of New Media Maxim: It’s using free, web-only publishing tools whenever possible. It’s established an “ideaLab,” a group of innovation-focused staffers to experiment with new tools and methods of reporting and engaging with readers. It’s been sharing profits with staff. And it’s convened a group of new media all-stars to serve as advisors as its papers plunge head-first into “digital first.”
Yesterday, those all-stars — Emily Bell, Jeff Jarvis, and Jay Rosen — gathered in the newsroom of JRC’s flagship paper, Torrington, CT’s Register Citizen (home of the famous newsroom cafe, the community media lab, and, as of this week, a used bookstore), to talk innovation strategy with Journal Register staffers. The confab was literally an inside-out version of a typical, closed-door Advisory Board session: Rather than taking place in a closed-off meeting space, the conversation happened around a desk smack in the middle of the Register Citizen’s open, airy newsroom, with the clacking of keyboards and the clicking of microfilm reels and the general hum of journalism being done serving as soundtrack to the discussion.
Most importantly, the meeting was open to the public. Community members (twenty or so of them, including librarians, an assistant schools superintendent, a UConn professor, a state senator, and a representative from the Chamber of Commerce) sat in chairs loosely situated around the advisory board’s oblong desk. (The atmosphere was casual: “We have a bit of an agenda today,” Journal Register CEO John Paton said during his introduction, “but the advisory board usually works best when it’s just talking about issues.”) And to accommodate the members of the paper’s virtual community, the meeting was also live-streamed, both on the Register Citizen site and on UStream (370 total views). Situated directly above the meeting area was a wall-mounted screen that streamed tweeted questions and comments about the proceedings — from JRC employees and the broader community — via the #JRC hashtag.
As Bell tweeted after the confab concluded: “Never quite been to a meeting like that before.”
I highly recommend watching the archived video of the discussion (above or here): Rarely do journalism’s wide array of interested parties — journalists themselves, business-side executives, academics, analysts, and, of course, community members — come together in such direct dialogue. The conversation that resulted is both telling and, I think, fascinating. But if “Read Later” you must, here are some broad — but, be warned, not even close to summative! — takeaways from the proceedings.
During the board’s discussion of engagement and transparency, Emily Olson, the Register Citizen’s managing editor, described a recent experiment in which the editorial staff asked the paper’s readers what they would like the paper to fact-check. The responses, she noted, weren’t gratitude at being asked to participate in the process, but rather sarcasm and indignation: “Why do we have to do your jobs for you? What are you getting paid for?”
While the table generally agreed that a more targeted question — “What do you want us to fact-check about X?” — might have been more effective in terms of eliciting earnest responses, Olson’s experience also hints at one of the broad problems facing news outlets that have so many new engagement mechanisms available to them: How do you serve a wide array of audience interest, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of presentation? How do you accommodate different “levels” of audience, not only when it comes to background information about stories, but also when it comes to the desire for participation itself? To what extent do people want to be part of the process of journalism, and to what extent do they prefer information that is simply presented to them, fully formed?
“People,” of course, is anything but monolithic — and that’s the point. Some folks are thrilled, cognitive surplus-style, to have new opportunities to participate in the creative process of journalism. Others, though, want a more sit-back experience of news consumption. They don’t want here’s-how-we-got-the-story or here’s-how-you-can-help; they simply want The News, the product. So if you’re a media outlet, how do you serve both broad groups simultaneously, enabling participation for the former group…without annoying the latter?
In a post-meeting discussion, the group agreed on the power of data — not only as a valuable journalistic offering, but also as a means of increasing Journal Register papers’ pageviews, and thus the company’s bottom line. As an example, Rosen pointed to the telling experience of the Texas Tribune, where a whopping two thirds of total site views come to its data pages.
Data presentations, Rosen noted, can be successful because they bridge the information gap between what’s available and what’s actually accessible. Sure, data sets are often already out there, somewhere — so in focusing on them, you might not be adding new information, strictly speaking, into the communal cache of knowledge. But the service is about bringing the information home to people. As Rosen put it: “Packaging, framing, explanation, user-friendliness — that’s the value added.”
Journal Register’s publisher, Matt DeRienzo, noted the recent posting of a schools budget (via Scribd) — which was, the board agreed, a good first step in the data direction. The paper could try similar experiments, they suggested, with any number of similar data sets, from the already-accessible to the need-to-be-FOIAed. Ultimately, “become the Big Data place,” Jarvis advised.
A recurring theme yesterday was the power, and really the necessity, of experimentation when it comes to determining broad strategies. And one of JRC’s chief infrastructural advantages — one shared, in various ways, by other media companies — is that it holds several different properties under its auspices. In other words, it has an entire chain of newspapers that it can experiment with, testing everything from those news-innovation-y tenets to more notional what-ifs.
Take comments systems. If Journal Register, as a whole, wants to figure out the best way to moderate conversations surrounding its journalism, the Register Citizen could implement Facebook Comments, say, while the New Haven Register could experiment with a HuffPo-style community moderation approach, while the Troy Record could see what happens if comments are turned on for one type of story and disabled for another. For the company overall, risk could be mitigated through what amounts to experimental diversification — while, at the same time, the lessons learned from the experiments could be applied company-wide. And, in that way, amplified.
And speaking of comments…
The board’s discussion, as happens a lot, spent a lot of time focused on the ideal way to run comments systems. How do you reward helpful participation while punishing — or, at least, discouraging — trolls and other conversation-killers? “Every community is going to have bozos,” Jarvis noted. “The Internet’s just a community; so it’s going to have bozos.”
A more productive approach than one focused on troll-fighting, the board suggested, might be to focus instead on rewarding good behavior — the Gawker/HuffPo approach that empowers community members to elevate the good comments and demote the bad. Ultimately, though, no one’s “figured out” how to do comments; and that’s partially because each community is different when it comes to the kinds of conversations it wants to conduct and convene online.
What the board — and, from the sounds of things, community members — agreed on, though, was that it’s a good idea to expand the notion of comments beyond the current definition of them as things-that-follow-a-story. Reframing commentary as something that’s not simply reactive, but productive — instead of “What did you think of this story?” something like, “How should we write this story?” — could be a useful exercise not only in terms of conversation, but also in terms of engagement and transparency. And, of course, it could keep improving the overall quality of the journalism Journal Register papers put out. “I’m going to be honest — it used to be a joke,” Melanie Macmillan, a reader in attendance at the meeting, noted of the Register Citizen. But now, she said, with the strides it’s making toward openness and community involvement, “it’s something I’m proud of.”