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Chats don’t have to be online: A newspaper finds success with its downtown news cafe

The Winnipeg Free Press’s cafe has increased reader engagement, helped social media efforts, and apparently made some fine sandwiches.

Not long ago, the Winnipeg Free Press’s social media editor hosted an online chat from her desk at the paper’s downtown news cafe. She had done it many times in recent months but something unexpected happened.

People had taken up the paper’s social media invitation to “join us” in a chat about Google+ with guests including GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram. But audience members started showing up at the cafe in person saying, “I’m here for the chat!”

“I looked at them and thought, ‘Oh…okay. That’s my mistake there. I didn’t promote this the right way,’ said Lindsey Wiebe. “But that’s also a good sign,” she added. “They’re thinking of this cafe as a hub where our events are held. So, it’s been a challenge for all of us in not just integrating the cafe into what we’re doing, but remembering that people come here expecting stuff.”

The experience highlights the challenges and rewards of the paper’s effort to host live events online and in-person at its news cafe — increasingly in tandem. The Free Press cafe recently hosted an interactive town hall breakfast meeting with Manitoba’s premier and a lunch hour chat with the executive leading the construction of Winnipeg’s new Canadian Museum for Human Rights. These live events are in addition to other events journalists have recorded at the cafe and posted later online, such as a series of interviews with comedians playing the city’s comedy festival.

The episode also underscores the paper’s changing role as it tries to push some of its newsroom presence out of its suburban office building and into the public, physical realm of its downtown cafe. It’s showing the public how the sausage is made, using more than just the online tools favored by many news organizations.

Canada’s first news cafe

The Free Press was the first newspaper in Canada to launch a news cafe, and it may be the largest paper in North America to do so. The Free Press, Winnipeg’s largest daily, has a Monday to Friday circulation of 115,827. Winnipeg is Canada’s eighth-largest city, with a population of 753,000.

Wiebe and two colleagues — multimedia reporter Tania Kohut and multimedia editor Tyler Walsh — are based full-time in the cafe. Their desks sit on a low riser in a bright corner of the coffee shop, situated in the historic building the Free Press took over five months ago. Lights and TV monitors on the stage frequently grab the attention of people walking by.

“Right away you walk in and see this is a live studio,” said John White, deputy editor of online, who got the cafe up and running. “At any given time, you’ll see other journalists working there — columnists and other writers meeting people there or just going there to write. We also encourage our staff to meet our contacts there.”

Street-level news studios aren’t a new concept, of course. Toronto broadcast entrepreneur Moses Znaimer pioneered the store-front television studio with Citytv in the 1980s — but the audience watched from the sidewalk.

The open, walk-in-and-chat newsroom is still a rare commodity. In Connecticut, Journal Register’s The Register Citizen has been experimenting with open access to reporters via its news cafe. Other news organizations have hosted one-day news cafes or experimented with stationing single reporters in existing coffee shops.

In Winnipeg, the cafe hosts the paper’s online staff in a Free Press-branded full-service restaurant in the heart of the city’s busy Exchange District. Office workers pack the cafe during the lunch hour, attracted by the menu of local organic fare, such as Kohut’s favorite, the Manitoba Club, topped with bacon from a nearby farm.

Cafe ‘well-suited’ for social media work

So, how do the journalists get any work done? “People ask me that a lot, actually,” said Wiebe.

“Social media is actually work that is well-suited to this type of environment. It’s a lot of small tasks,” she said. “Social media is about connecting with people, and if I’m going to be doing that, it makes sense to be doing that in a public way.”

She adds that chatting with people is part of her journalistic function — not a impediment to it. “It helps a lot that I have editors who are pretty supportive of the idea that talking to the public is my job,” she said. “That’s not time-wasting and taking away from my duties. That’s part of what we’re doing here.”

For multimedia reporter Kohut, the transition to working in public was difficult at first. “For a few weeks I did have a bit of a problem. It was very surprising to have people watching me, coming up and talking to me, having lunch and laughing — babies in there crying,” she said. “Now I’m pretty much used to it. I can go hide in the basement if I need to, but I rarely do.”

Walsh, the paper’s multimedia editor, says another challenge has been the isolation from his other colleagues, even as tens of people chatter around him. “Not having face-to-face contact with the various editors [at the main Free Press office] has been a challenge, for sure — especially with our photo editor, who I work in tandem with,” he said. “Not being able to walk over to his desk and converse about an idea or where his people are at…there’s been a communication barrier that we’re still working through.”

Aiming to attract young people

The Exchange District is an older downtown neighborhood of renovated warehouses that house design studios, art spaces, and a film production company. The area is popular with a younger crowd, according to White, and the news cafe’s presence there — a partnership with an established cafe operator — is no accident.

“That’s the crowd I’m most interested in,” said White. “The key for us is to make sure we connect with the next generation and show them that we’re a relevant brand. I can safely say we’ve lost that connection with the younger generation.”

While its broadcast competitors have had a downtown presence for years, the Free Press, like many papers, left downtown decades ago for cheaper land in the suburbs. This small move back downtown, not far from its original historic building, is a chance to take on those competitors by building the Free Press’s video brand at a community level, says Walsh.

“There’s a connection to the public that you just don’t get on the third floor of a building out in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “This is literally wide open. People can walk in and if they have something to say to you, good or bad, they can say it, because you’re sitting right there.”

But the prospect of “sitting right there” and taking audience complaints didn’t appeal to some Free Press staffers, well acquainted with the kind of responses stories can get in online comments sections or by phone.

“There were concerns [in the newsroom] about what sort of person would be seeking us out in the cafe,” said Wiebe. “If you work in a newsroom, you’re accustomed to the kinds of calls you get at the city desk…There are people dealing with mental illness. There are angry, irate people of all stripes.”

But Wiebe says the tenor of conversation has been surprisingly civil — perhaps because the exchanges are face to face. “I can count on one hand the number of people who have been snarky or cynical,” she said. “Even people who do have issues to raise have done so in a respectful way.”

Journalists at other cafes have pointed to the prospect of gaining story ideas from cafe-goers as a key benefit. Wiebe says she has received some story ideas, but the increase in audience feedback and interaction has been the most important aspect. She recalls the day the Winnipeg Jets released the team logo for their new-again NHL team. Walsh put the logo up on the monitor for everyone in and outside the cafe to see.

“For an hour and half, people were walking by saying, ‘What? Really?’ said Wiebe. “We had little clusters gathering with each other, gathering with me, and saying they like it or they don’t like it and here’s why. It was just sort of unexpected and fun. And I consider things like that to be indicative of the pros of this place.”

Wiebe says the cafe is about being present in the community and turning the organization outward. The result has been increased social media engagement accompanying the increased foot traffic in cafe. “It’s giving us a face. That may sound a little precious, but especially for print media, we’re not personalities in the same way (as our broadcast competitors),” she said. “Being here has given us a public presence — a visible one in a way we wouldn’t ordinarily have.”

                                   
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