AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2011

Wooing Them with Coffee   

A newspaper tries to get closer to its audience by operating a news café, which also features working journalists, community events and, soon, courses in community journalism. Thurs., September 29, 2011

By Romy Zipken
Romy Zipken (rzipken@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

It's no secret that news organizations are trying all kinds of strategies to build their audiences during an era of media transformation.

But wooing them with coffee?

That's the strategy adopted by the Winnipeg Free Press, which in March opened a news café in the Canadian city's Exchange district, an artsy area in the oldest part of downtown Winnipeg. The area is chock-full of galleries, eateries, designer boutiques and new-media companies, allowing for a "dynamic, non-traditional newspaper reading audience," Free Press columnist Dan Lett says.

Years ago, like many other newspapers, the Free Press moved out of the city and into a suburban office building. The café brought the paper's presence back into the hometown, Lett says.

On an average morning, you can find a group of journalists shooting video that will air on the Free Press Web site. You'll see Free Press reporters having meetings with their editors, and the multimedia and social media people hard at work, too. Free Press staffers, who work out of the café on a rotating basis, can always be found creating content there.

The café has a bunch of regulars, who come in for "the usual" — coffee, lunch and chats with their local reporters. Some people simply stop by for the ambiance: enjoying the view of the Exchange district from the café's large windows, or catching up on the news on the café's televisions while they take a break.

There is at least one event per week at the café. During provincial elections, the café hosts town hall meetings featuring political candidates that community members can watch in person, or virtually, while weighing in live online via a blog.

Education is also a part of the café's future, an idea borrowed from the Register Citizen in Torrington, Connecticut, which also has a newsroom café. Starting soon, classes will be offered focusing on blogging, HTML programming, video editing and media law, the latter to show "that if you are going to write a blog, how you can avoid losing your home by defaming someone," Lett says.

Those interested in video can go to the café and learn how to use the Free Press' equipment. The paper has even created a space for citizen journalist contributions on its Web site, and it's not stopping there.

The Winnipeg Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation have just invested $400,000 in "Community News Commons," a program in which the Free Press will train citizen journalists at the cafe. The grant will give the café the capital it needs to achieve its vision of becoming a hub for community news.

The Free Press' main newsroom is still around, but the café offers an extension where journalists and non-journalists can mingle. "What we find is people feel pretty comfortable approaching our journalists," says John White, the Free Press' deputy editor, online.

People with blogs, who have always wanted to write or be a journalist, can use the news café to pursue dreams they might have had little chance of fulfilling before, says Mathew Ingram, senior writer at GigaOm.com, a Web site that covers the business of technology.

"Why not take advantage of that?" Ingram asks. "If it's a question of going to sit at a meeting and turn notes into something sensible, that's not brain surgery. It's a skill that you can learn, and it doesn't take three years of journalism school."

The Free Press' goal, however, isn't to have the audience replace staff writers. "I think you want to allow your readers to make a contribution and give them a forum so that they can discuss the news of the day, not replace what we do, but to augment what we do," Lett says.

At a time when newspapers are being labeled a dying breed by some, it is easy for journalists to complain about the perceived loss of value in what they do. Instead of whining, Lett says, print companies need to get proactive and creative. Social media might seem like the road to success, but the good old-fashioned meet- and-greet can be effective as well.

"The point is to get journalists to talk to non-journalists, which isn't something journalists tend to do, unless they have to," Ingram says.

The Free Press isn't the first newspaper to court readers with coffee.

In December 2010, the Register Citizen moved its entire newsroom into an old factory in Torrington, Connecticut, and fashioned it as a café as well.

The newspaper needed a new space, anyway. Its old building was too big for the staff, and it was an opportune time to move to a location more visible to the community, says Managing Editor Emily Olson.

The Register Citizen's café is a way to put an end to the chasm that sometimes exists between news outlet and audience, or the "us and them," as Olson calls it. It seems to be working, too. The paper won the 2011 Innovator of the Year award from Associated Press Media Editors for its originality in bridging the gap between news producer and news consumer.

The café also serves as a venue for community journalism school. Courses are available on a variety of subjects, like how to write a press release or how to use social media. The latter might seem pretty basic to a younger generation of digital natives, but to those not savvy about status updates and hashtags, the courses have been highly beneficial.

The café also holds the paper's archives, dating back to the Register Citizen's origins in the 1800s. Interested passersby can read through pages of history without having to stop an employer mid-work to request the past pages.

Although the Register Citizen is busy with its newsroom café, it also embraces social media. The newspaper uses Facebook and Twitter to interact with its audience.

The Free Press' café, while similar to the Register Citizen's, doesn't go quite as far.

"We don't really have a vision of having a full newsroom downtown," White says. "It's not quite as transparent as theirs."

Despite the differences, both newspapers are working to communicate with their readers on a more personal level.

Says Lett, "One of the pleasant ironies of this place is that it's something new for newspapers that allows us to do something that's quite traditional, which is to meet more directly with people."