One ideaLab participant, Ivan Lajara of Kingston, New York’s Daily Freeman, says that sometimes his paper’s experiments are successful and sometimes they aren’t. In April, Lajara used CoverItLive to capture reporter Patricia Doxsey’s live tweets from a murder trial, and hundreds of readers participated in the discussion online. In addition to attracting traffic, the readers, in turn, helped Doxsey shape her coverage, as she learned what her readers found most interesting. Another experiment, the scannable quick response (QR) codes Lajara printed in the Freeman that would call up videos on readers’ smartphones, proved less successful; with only a handful of hits, he decided it wasn’t worth the effort. But he says he’s excited by this new freedom to try things “without having to go through twenty layers of bureaucracy.”

Such projects all had the goal of getting JRC papers in the habit of doing more with less, of drastically increasing the amount of content on their websites without increasing newsroom staff. That surge in content had the goal of bringing a larger audience to each site. And the growth of the audience, in turn, has the much more pressing goal: attracting advertisers.

The Next Newsroom?

If Paton’s staff stared blankly at him when he made his JRC debut, to a person they express enthusiasm about the direction the company is heading in. Mark Ranzenberger, online editor at The Morning Sun in central Michigan, says that the past year at JRC has shown him something he hadn’t experienced in the previous two decades. “It is the excitement of trying something new,” he says. “It is the challenge of a boss giving you permission to try stuff—and that has not been part of the culture of newspapers that I have seen.”

Perhaps none of JRC’s experiments has gotten as much industry attention as The Register Citizen’s “Open Newsroom Project.” Situated in Torrington, a small, ex-manufacturing town in northwest Connecticut with a population of about thirty-six thousand, the six-thousand circulation daily is what Paton says is the model—both business and architectural—for all of JRC’s newsrooms in the future.

Torrington’s newsroom resembles a public library or community center as much as a newsroom: it has free-access “blogging stations,” microfilm machines with the paper’s archives hooked up to a printer (also free) for genealogical and historical research, and local art on exhibit. Its conference rooms are available for local organizations to hold meetings, and reporters and editors teach classes all week on topics like online publishing, social media, and video.

Most striking in its dedication to openness and transparency to its readers, however, is the fact that The Register Citizen opens its daily editorial meeting to the public, and live-streams it as well. Online viewers often send feedback through Twitter or a chatroom. And readers are encouraged to respond to stories published online, with corrections or additional context, via a new fact-check box below each post.

The staff of The Register Citizen is young, as it is in many small-market newspapers. Most of its reporters are in their twenties and half have been there for less than a year. One editor at JRC described her paper as a “teaching newspaper”—offering jobs with relatively low pay in smaller markets—that attracts college graduates but doesn’t necessarily keep them long. And for all the investment the new management has put into JRC, these have not necessarily included additional newsroom hires or pay raises.

“I’m pretty honest about our faults here with the community,” says Matt DiRienzo DeRienzo, The Register Citizen’s publisher. “Because why try to ignore it? They can read the papers and see the one-source story, or the misspelled name or whatever. We have the same problems all small papers have.” So the open-newsroom initiative is undertaken in the spirit of increasing the paper’s credibility with its readers—to demonstrate that the staff will take responsibility for its shortcomings and do the best job it can with admittedly limited resources.

Improving The Register Citizen’s relationship with its community through its open newsroom project is not just an act of altruism; it’s a business decision. If the paper can attract new bloggers with its computer workstations and free classes, it can help expand the website’s coverage for no extra cost. Readers who visit editorial meetings often offer story ideas. Online editors constantly solicit readers’ photos and contributions to stories and graphics like “What’s the town’s most dangerous intersection?” JRC reporters, after all, can’t be everywhere.

Today and Tomorrow

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner