Bridging the divide between newspapers and the communities they cover is a priority for John Paton, CEO of the Journal Register Company which owns The Register Citizen in Torrington, Connecticut. He met with staff members and local residents during a visit to the paper. Photo courtesy of The Register Citizen.

The digital newsroom conjures up images of eyes locked on computer screens, barely a voice heard, messages tweeted and stories filed with a click, chats going on via Skype and CoveritLive as fingertips tap. Reporters pick up news of the day from sources spread far and wide in cyberspace. No need for face-to-face contact now that cyberconnections are made so effortlessly.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Before I describe how my day goes in our digital newsroom—the one I manage at The Register Citizen in Torrington, Connecticut—let me applaud the gift of expanded outreach that these digital tools offer. Rest assured we use them to whatever advantage we can to grow our community beyond what we’ve built with our newspaper.

I’ve worked at this paper for just over two years, previously as a copy editor and page designer and now as the managing editor with a staff of about 15. Just as editors did a century ago, I sit at my desk first thing each morning and respond to what I find waiting. In my case, this means voice mails to listen to and answer and e-mail to check. These tasks never end—e-mail, it seems, is here to stay, at least for now. I check e-mail from home, but I arrive to find a mountain of messages in the two accounts for which I’m responsible.

Multitasking commences as I log on to TweetDeck and into our content management system and open the newspaper’s website, which is a living, breathing organism, with constantly changing content. In our newsroom at least five people are responsible for making changes on our site at any given time. As soon as I can, I join them—scanning the Web and checking The Associated Press’s wire and website for national news. On the local front it’s about what meetings are going on and what the police might be finding or looking for. This is what the reporters, lead editor, and my publisher tell me. As the day progresses, I develop a mental image of what tomorrow’s newspaper will look like as we try to blend an understanding of what’s happening in our community and beyond.

Our Newsroom Cafe

Perhaps the most significant informers I have are people who aren’t a part of our newsroom but visit our offices and inhabit our digital space. These voices belong to members of the public. In the past, our readers, like all readers, must have felt as if a wall existed between them and us. We’ve torn down the dividing wall and now we can listen closely to the voices once behind it. That’s what our changes are about.

Our news company no longer only publishes a daily along with some weekly papers in the Farmington Valley, towns that surround our capital of Hartford. In our new office space, we’ve created the Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe, open six days a week to bloggers, students and senior citizens as well as public and elected officials. Ordinary citizens stop by our offices nearly every day and share their news with us, sometimes over a cup of coffee in the cafe.

When the staff of The Register Citizen moved out of its 105-year-old home on Water Street late last year, it was a strange feeling to know that we would be part of a public space where anyone, and I mean anyone, could just walk in the door from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and talk to us. Anybody can literally walk up to us at our desks and ask a question. Partitions around our desks are low so we’re visible to everyone who walks in the door. No hiding. No turning away from any man, woman or teenager who walks in.

We need to be ready. And we are.

I remember the day when a man walked in with a folder under his arm. His young son was with him and after looking around he asked to speak to a reporter. I could see one of our writers, Mike Agogliati, at his desk, so I sent them his way. Within moments, they were deep in conversation in our newsroom cafe.

The man opened his folder and soon the three of them were looking at documents, letters and other pieces of information. It turned out that he owned a farmstand where he sold fruits and vegetables during the summer and fall. It was in a nearby community directly across the street from the town hall, and a zoning officer had found it to be a "junk yard." This became a legal battle, and he was sued. He was heading to court the next day; he wanted us to know about his case—and he came with a story to tell.

As he and Mike talked, it became apparent that this was about more than what happened to this man’s farmstand. What made the story so compelling for us was connecting this legal action with earlier stories about the zoning officer, who had been fired, arrested and fined for embezzlement for falsely reporting his hours. When Mike and the man finished talking, Mike had a story to track down and confirm. By day’s end, a story about the zoning officer and the farmstand was on our website and ready for our print edition.

Something similar surely would have happened in our old newsroom but our open doors, wide spaces for people to walk through, and the availability of a reporter gave this man the confidence he needed to stop by and ask us to talk with him. In our old building, we were in a wing away from the public’s view; the only time we saw people other than each other was when we invited them in. Most of the time we went out to see them. The shabby newsroom with its high partitions and sequestered workspaces was not conducive to this kind of open atmosphere.

Here we have a gallery, a cafe with coffee, and places to sit and talk. There’s a microfilm machine available so people can look through our archives back to the early 1900′s. Or they can sit quietly and read the paper or work on their laptops in peace.

We also hold open newsroom meetings at 4 each weekday afternoon and stream them live on our website as reporters share their stories. Then we offer a live chat to viewers who always ask questions and give us information. That would never have happened in our old newsroom.

Since we moved into this space where factories once operated, such moments happen a lot more frequently. This is not to say that people line up at the door demanding to talk to a reporter. But knowing we’re there and that the doors are open has made a tremendous difference—for them and for us. How to quantify the change—or even to describe it—is not always easy so when someone asks what’s different, I say, "Everything."

There are many who believe newspapers are on their way out—about to join the woolly mammoth as an extinct creature, exhibited in museums alongside typewriters. By 2025, maybe sooner, we won’t have any need for them. I hope that’s not true, but I do know that our newspaper company was in financial trouble two years ago, and we turned our foundering vessel in bankruptcy into something viable that readers can depend on.

Thousands of visitors come to our website each month. We have a vibrant, albeit snarky and cranky, online community that debates everything from the cost of health care to the new fire truck to the color of the flowers planted in the city park.

Online Community Building

Community commentary rarely lacks passion—and we are part of it. If not for the Web and Twitter and Facebook and all those wonderful tools that are available to journalists today, we would be woefully unaware of what our readers genuinely want to know. We do our best to give it to them, in print and online.

How do we do it? We ask them questions and most of the time they respond. For instance, our daily poll has questions about politics, schools, budgets and the weather, spanning a range of topics. Some gain momentum and we take those further, asking for more input. During a huge blizzard in January, we asked our readers to post photos on Twitter and Facebook. The response was phenomenal. We featured the best ones and posted comments from our readers, which, in turn, led to more comments and memories. Then we asked people to send us photos from other snowstorms and received an avalanche of memories about the Blizzard of ’78, which shut down Connecticut.

When the mayor of our city does something people don’t like, they tell us on our website. We still get letters to the editor, but a higher percentage of our content and information comes from the Internet or from people who walk in to tell us how they feel. In this city, there’s a strong feeling of community ownership for The Register Citizen. Opening the Newsroom Cafe was really about extending that sense of ownership and making it real for more people.

After moving to 59 Field Street, a New York Times reporter asked me what I’d do if a resident sat down at my desk and started telling me how to write my story. "Wouldn’t that be hard?" he asked. His expression showed concern.

His question caused me to pause and think for a while about how I would feel. Finally I told him that I didn’t know what I would do, but I would figure it out. That hasn’t happened, but if someone does come in and wants to talk about a story I am working on, I trust that I would be more than willing to hear what she had to say. If her ideas can improve the story, I see no harm in taking time to listen or even in telling her the direction in which the story seems headed. But the idea of someone standing over my shoulder; that’s not easy to imagine. So far, the Times reporter’s concern hasn’t been realized.

Our digital newsroom is opening up our sense of what community even means. As journalists, we are now more a part of the community that we report about. Those who live in the community and those who inhabit our digital community—and there is some overlap—feel more a part of our news operation and us. Everything we do goes online first and our print edition provides words and images to those who prefer to hold news in their hands.

Like everyone inside the newsroom, I tweet updates, link to stories on Facebook, and post stories to our website, adding photos and text that appeals to our readers. As managing editor, I also work with staff reporters, fielding story ideas, editing copy, and processing their work for print and the Web.

In March, John Paton, CEO of the Journal Register Company, which owns The Register Citizen, hosted an advisory board meeting with digital media experts such as "What Would Google Do?" author Jeff Jarvis and New York University professor Jay Rosen addressing our staff. In all, there were about 50 guests watching this live broadcast to all the newspapers around the company. This gave all of us a glimpse at what’s ahead and served as a good example of the digital newsroom at work.

Our digital newsroom is not an extension of what it takes to run a newspaper; it is the primary element. Advertising still needs to be sold to pay our bills, but at the same time something about how we do our jobs changes all the time. I have been involved with community journalism for more than 12 years. From when I started to now the difference in what the pairing of the two words "community" and "journalism" even means has been profound. It’s amazing to be riding on the edge of change, and it’s great to have folks from our community riding with us.

Emily M. Olson is the managing editor of The Register Citizen in Torrington, Connecticut. Visit www.registercitizen.com; follow on Twitter.com/registercitizen, or contact Emily at eolson@registercitizen.com.

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