Newsroom doors open for public insight

By Margaret Staniforth

(Photo by Phil Wolff’s Flickr via Creative Commons)

Newsrooms have often been places of secrecy.  Journalists have feared that giving away too much information about a source or a lead would mean losing a story to a competitor.  However, to better reach the public, some news organizations today are offering open invitations into their newsrooms and private meetings.

Amy Bartner, engagement manager at The Indianapolis Star, said her paper is adding real-life engagement events to existing social-media efforts.

The last Friday of every month, The Star hosts an open newsroom meeting. Members of the local community are encouraged to attend and join the news producing process.

The first time they did this, Bartner said that around 60 members of the local community attended.  She is expecting to see a larger turnout as more readers become aware of the events.

“This is an effort from a number of Gannett newspapers in different cities to reach out to the community,” Bartner said in an email.  “There are at least two or three others that are doing it.”

In the past, when journalism was more secretive, audiences were only invited into the story at the end of it all, after publishing, according to Jake Batsell, an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University and the author of “Engaged Journalism: Connecting With Digitally Empowered News Audiences.” He said there is opportunity to include audiences in other aspects of reporting.

“Invite communities in at the beginning of the news producing process,” Batsell said.

Newsrooms have been experimenting with various degrees of openness over the past few years.  The Register Citizen in Torrington, Connecticut is especially transparent with the community it serves.  The paper opened a café in the newsroom specifically to draw in community members.  It also live streams meetings so that anyone, anywhere can engage.

“I think dealing with the public, there’s always going to be ups and downs, but with all the changes in newspapers, it’s important for us be accessible,” Emily Olson, the managing editor at the Register Citizen told the Columbia Journalism Review.

However, Rick Thomason, the Register Citizen’s editor, told CJR that reporters do not talk about all of their stories at the meetings.

There are “some stories we just don’t want to get beat on,” Thomason said.

Becoming more open does not need to require The Register Citizen’s level of candidness.

“It’s not necessarily an all or nothing,” said Batsell.

Instead, newsrooms that decide to join in the trend of opening their doors to the public should be ready to hear pitches and listen to concerns from those in attendance.

Of course, we cannot know if open-door policies will be a long-term solution for newsrooms, but that’s not to say that the ideas of engagement and openness are going away.

“More and more of today’s journalists realize … their job is to connect with audiences,” Batsell said.

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