A grand experiment in hyperlocal journalism
On Dec. 13, The Register Citizen, which has been serving Connecticut's Litchfield County for 118 years, is moving from the offices they have occupied for over 100 years into a reclaimed manufacturing space to foster community engagement. It is hard to come up with a better metaphor for the changing of the times in newspaper publishing. The new 13,000-square-foot space, which includes a community reading room, free WiFi with workspaces for community bloggers, and a newsroom cafe, reflects the publisher's audience-driven strategy.
The community newsroom is also -- and not just symbolically-- the collapsing of the wall that has traditionally separated a publication and its readers. The Letter-to-the-Editor days of interaction between publications and their readers are over (and that's not a bad thing). The audience in this instance is quite literally being invited into The Register Citizen's physical space.
The move also reflects an understanding of the reality that The Register Citizen's online readers -- about 140,000 uniques in November -- now far surpasses its 8,000 print subscribers. To that end, The Community Meeting Room will also house The Register Citizen Community Journalism School, a classroom that will teach the fundamentals of blogging, citizen journalism and video storytelling. In other words: The Register Citizen is giving back.
Are community-friendly spaces such as this the future of the newsroom? Will the next-generation newsroom succeed and, if so, can it be duplicated by other publishers? This move underscores the bold experimentation of the local paper's parent, The Journal Register Company, and The Ben Franklin Project, which has taken an "anything goes as long as it works" approach to the future of the company. In his address last week at the INMA Transformation of News Summit in Cambridge, Mass., John Patton, who took over the company in February, explained how he brought the organization back to profitability from bankruptcy in 2009. Regarding The Register Citizen, he revealed:
"In Torrington, CT at our daily, the Register Citizen, our young publisher there, Matt DeRienzo deputized his entire community to Fact Check all of his products online and in print.
"By putting a Fact Check box online he issued an invitation to every reader, source and community member to hold them accountable and engage in correcting, improving or expanding the story.
"Matt’s innovative approach to our Digital First model has created an online audience 6.5x greater than his print audience and he has taken what was a money-losing operation into a profitable one. He has outsourced all non-core activities and is concentrating on creating content and driving sales."
There is something quite organic to this editorial focus on the crowd in a hyperlocal play. Community, which all publishers try to foster, is particularly strong in hyperlocal plays. Who better to police a community paper's accuracy than the community itself?
In their comments sections, ideological communities like The Huffington Post rely, successfully, on a mixture of algorithm-based comment solutions and deputized readers to promote the site's quality. An actual community member in a physical -- as opposed to ideological -- neighborhood has, conceivably, a far greater vested interest in maintaining the organization's vitality and relevance. Having members of the community fact check a community site's accuracy is not unlike asking them to pick trash from the street corner in real time.
Will the hyperlocal newsroom of the future take a page out of Starbucks' hyperlocal digital network strategy, even going so far as to sell coffee and pastry? Both Starbucks at the hyperlocal level and The Register Citizen as a community "paper" are focusing on being good neighbors and providing real value to their community. It is in having a good reputation and providing vital information -- weather, crime, etc -- that they are relevant to readers and thus of value to local advertisers.