On Monday, reporters from the nonprofit California Watch fanned out across the state, turning coffeehouses into newsrooms for a day. The news organization’s fourth “Open Newsroom” was a chance to escape the insular walls of the office and mingle with readers where they live.
“I always say we’re so old school we’re new school,” said Ashley Alvarado, the community engagement manager for California Watch. “We’re really invested in our readers and we want our readers to direct what we do. And that includes our readers who don’t actually read us yet. If you have that relationship with people, if they start to have brand awareness, know who you are, know that you’re trustworthy, we’re going to start telling much richer stories.”
It’s a zero-cost way for a young and still relatively obscure news organization to do a little self-promotion and pick up story ideas in the process. Since California Watch participates in MPR’s Public Insight Network — a shared database of citizen “sources” who are experts on particular topics — every visitor is a prospective source. It’s not unlike the approach of the Texas Tribune, another nonprofit news startup, whose IRL events have generated buzz and revenue.
The California Watch event has gotten more sophisticated since the first Open Newsroom in 2010, when editorial director Mark Katches needed an office for the day and set up shop at a local coffeehouse. The turnout was modest: “It was a pretty uneventful day at our first Open Newsroom,” he wrote afterward, “although I have to say the lemon scone at Royal Ground Coffee was pretty tasty.”
This time the Open Newsroom was promoted in advance, and the coffee shops got notice of their soon-to-be-newsroom status (lest reporters be seen as loitering laptop hobos). California Watch reps posted a sign at each location advertising their presence.
Altogether 29 reporters, editors, and interns participated, including staffers from California Watch’s media partners and its parent organization, the Center for Investigative Reporting. Alvarado talked to me from LAMILL Coffee in the L.A. neighborhood of Silverlake, where she had stayed late to hear from a cancer-research advocate who lost her fiancé to the disease. Reporters and readers discussed medical marijuana, hospitals, data journalism, Latinos and social media, and preschool, to name a few topics. Along the way, Alvarado tracked the conversations happening among her colleagues and the public on Twitter and recapped the day with a Storify post.
“I’ve been thrilled with the communication I’ve had with the people today about the kind of interactions they’re having, the kinds of stories that they’re hearing,” Alvarado said. The turnout was big in San Diego, she said, where California Watch’s distribution manager arrived, along with reps from the Union-Tribune and the ABC affiliate, to find a crowd waiting.
California Watch has always been big on the go-where-the-people-are idea. In April, the organization extended its reporting on seismic safety in public schools by distributing coloring books featuring earthquake preparedness tips (Alvarado’s idea). In October 2010, following a series about lead-tainted jewelry, California Watch offered free lead testing to consumers.
“We want to make our news as accessible as possible. And with every story, as much as is humanly possible, we want to take it to our readers,” Alvarado said. “We say, ‘Who’s most affected by this issue?’ And we make sure we get them the information they need to become their own advocates.”
Alvarado expects to host about four Open Newsrooms a year.