Cappuccino and Citizen Journalism
A New Jersey news blog moves its newsroom into a coffee shop.
By Abby Brownback
Many would argue that news and coffee go together like salt and pepper. A hyperlocal site in Freehold, New Jersey, is willing to bet this holds true for newsrooms and coffee shops.
Abby Brownback is an AJR editorial assistant.
The site, Freehold InJersey, is one of 14 Gannett-owned community news blogs across the state. But this one, run by the Asbury Park Press, is the only one to integrate its newsroom into a local coffee shop where citizen journalists can interact with fellow members of the community.
"My biggest hope was that people would just come and chat with us," Editor Colleen Curry says. "The site really wants to facilitate discussion in the community. We want to remove the barrier that exists in print journalism."
Curry, the site's only paid staffer, and about 15 volunteer community contributors started working in Zebu Forno, the coffee shop, on June 28. From their small workstation in the front of the shop, the contributors--any Freehold residents who register with the site--conduct interviews, collect story ideas and publish eight to 10 daily stories on the year-old WordPress blog. The platform allows the writers free rein to publish items to the blog, but Curry can take down unacceptable stories or ask writers to make changes to their work. The focus is news from Freehold Township and Freehold Borough, often items that might not make it into the print version of the Press.
| Freehold InJersey community correspondent Jackie Tempera, a high school senior, works about 12 hours per week in the Zebu Forno newsroom. (Handout Photo)|
"This community is served by a regional newspaper that covers the big news," says Curry, who is also a staff writer for the Press. "What we're able to do is cover everything that's happening in town. It creates a way for people to engage with one another and their towns more consistently."
John Cannon, the manager of Zebu Forno, says the newsroom will help the coffee shop become a meeting place for Freehold residents. "The whole concept of the business is being a town center, somewhere you can have a cup of coffee and meet your friends," he says.
Curry approached Zebu Forno about the partnership because "it seems to have the vibe of a place where people congregate," she says.
And that's an important element of community journalism, says Wilson Lowrey, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama, where students can earn a master's degree in community journalism. "Journalism should be available to the community," he says. "It's a process of journalists listening widely and carefully to their community."
Giving the public the opportunity to see how a newsroom, albeit a nontraditional one, operates could be a learning experience, Lowrey adds. This transparency not only could make citizens more media literate, but also "can shape the journalism, helping journalists see what the community cares about," he says.
Community correspondent Jackie Tempera, a high school senior, works about 12 hours per week in the Zebu Forno newsroom making phone calls and writing stories about local events and town government. She says having the newsroom in the middle of town makes the site truly interactive, and it allows people to easily pitch their ideas and voice their concerns to the site's reporters.
Tempera's work, as well as the work of other community correspondents, can be published in the Press if it meets the reporting and writing standards of the paper, says Ted Mann, digital development director for Gannett New Jersey. To reach this goal, the InJersey sites have partnered with Citizens' Campaign, a nonprofit group that encourages civic engagement, to put on workshops that train citizens in community journalism basics.
"For our newspapers, we've found ourselves with less and less resources to cover all the towns in our markets," Mann says. "We're still able to cover every single town but also use the wisdom of the crowd to enhance it."
Work done by Freehold InJersey contributors complements coverage by the Press, increasing the dialogue between reporters and the public by giving citizens more say about what constitutes news, Curry says.
"Our goal is to have citizen journalists contribute the majority of the content and to make sure it's good content," she says. "We aren't so much the gatekeepers anymore."
Lowrey acknowledged that a community news blog can generate a lot of posts, but he cautioned that sometimes with such "hybrid efforts, people lose interest. Most people don't really want to report hard news. People are more interested in reporting their ideas and opinions."
Mann might dispute that, saying traffic on InJersey sites--many of which are considering the coffee shop-newsroom model--is on par with that of other established hyperlocal networks like Patch.com. And Gannett New Jersey is finding that its InJersey news blogs just might answer that overarching question of community journalism: "How can we empower the people in those towns to spread more of the local news?"###