When the owner of a former brick-making factory in Kromeriz, Czech Republic, began storing large amounts of the plant’s leftover fly ash at his site, he tried to convince nearby residents that it was safe. But one resident, a stay-at-home mother of two young children, wasn’t buying it. She brought a circulating petition to a café on the main pedestrian shopping street of this town of 30,000 along the Morava River. There she found not only a cup of coffee, but also the newsroom of the city’s newest newspaper, Nase Adresa, a hyperlocal weekly designed to bring journalists closer to the community they cover.
“We met with her about the ash, and the mayor also stopped by to discuss it,” says Ondrej Holubec, Nase Adresa’s chief editor. Together, they researched the effects of exposure to fly ash, which include respiratory problems, and the newspaper published several stories on the potential hazard. Though the factory owner continues to argue his case, the citizen-press collaboration scored some victories. “For now,” says Holubec, “the guy has removed the ash.”
The Czech Republic has fourteen regions, and there are Nase Adresa (Our Address) news cafés in four of them. They are part of an experiment launched a year ago by PPF Media, a division of a private investment fund run by Petr Kellner, the richest man in the country.
Each café has about six full-time reporters, most of whom are under thirty, and a handful of stringers. Sales of coffee and sandwiches pay the rent and newsroom expenses. By 2011, PPF plans to have 150 regional weeklies, ninety of which will be based in cafés. PPF has invested about $12.5 million in the project, which includes Futuroom, the operation’s headquarters in Prague. The cafés function like bureaus, and Futuroom serves as both the newsroom hub and a national journalism training facility that provides multimedia packages and infographics to mainstream news outlets around the country. Each café publishes a print weekly, and maintains a daily Web site.
PPF thinks it can tap into local advertising markets by creating a strong bond with the communities. Company officials say it is working, but won’t release numbers to back that up. In the Czech Republic, as in the U.S., traditional news outlets are embattled, competing with digital startups for advertisers and readers and struggling to remain relevant at a time when anyone can launch a Web site and call himself a journalist. In Kromeriz, for instance, Nase Adresa makes life even more complicated for the city’s two traditional outlets, Kromerizsky Denik, a daily, and Tydenik Kromerizska, a weekly.
By creating an informal space where reporters and readers can come together, if not as equals then as equally concerned citizens, Nase Adresa hopes to foster a give and take that will make residents feel invested in the newspaper and its success. Toward that end, the cafés also host readings and forums on local issues. (The idea is catching, as Gannett News Service recently launched a similar café-based newsroom in New Jersey, where “citizen journalists” contribute to a hyperlocal blog overseen by a professional editor.)
Nase Adresa’s bread and butter is an unspectacular mix of bridge closings, business openings, profiles of promising students, and plenty of local sports—the routine fare of a small town. But it also tackles harder news and investigations, like the fly-ash problem. “This year we’ve had at least ten investigative stories that have come to us from residents,” says Holubec.
It’s not exactly All The President’s Men, but it is a civilized twist on the efforts to reconcile professional and “citizen” journalism. After all, anything’s possible over a good cup of coffee.Patti McCracken is a contributor to CJR.