Think of an “investigative newsroom.”
If you’re like most people, you’re probably imagining a sea of desks, the spaces between them populated by harried, hard-bitten reporters. Most of them are men, and all of them are fluorescent-lit, intensity-filled, and surrounded by the sounds of clattering keyboards and high-decibel phone conversations.
Now imagine a reporter, seated at a table at a neighborhood coffee shop, having some tea, using the wifi, chatting with passers-by, typing on her laptop. Oh, and doing some I-reporting.
The former image—forged in our minds both by film (thanks, All the President’s Men) and by the bustling, behemoth realities of the omnibus newspaper—is increasingly an endangered one. Newsrooms are folding; I-teams are disintegrating. Closer to the truth these days is perhaps the latter image—embodied, last Thursday, by the reporters at California Watch, the Berkeley-based investigative startup.
After a move displaced the California Watch staff from their offices last week, leaving them to work remotely (away from each other and—significantly—away from their office phones), they decided to make the best of an otherwise bitter situation: to take the opportunity to “fan out around the state” and “work in coffee shops with WiFi access.” They announced the plan—complete with a Google map detailing the location of each reporter’s chosen coffee shop—on californiawatch.org’s “Inside the Newsroom” blog, and sent the message out to their followers and fans on Facebook and Twitter.
The “Open Newsroom” project, as they dubbed it, was “an opportunity for the public to stop by, share a cup of coffee, and maybe give us some story ideas,” says Mark Katches, California Watch’s editorial director. The experiment, he wrote in the project’s announcement, is “part of a goal to connect with readers and get out of the office. We’re hoping it will be a regular part of what we do.”
In fact, “it’s always something that I’ve wanted to try,” Katches says of the get-out-into-the-community approach to traditional muckraking. “It may be a little gimmicky,” he says of the project, “but the principle is a really strong and sound one.”
While Thursday’s experiment itself had mixed results—“It was a pretty uneventful day at our first Open Newsroom,” Katches noted afterward, “although I have to say the lemon scone at Royal Ground Coffee was pretty tasty”—it’s one that California Watch will be trying again. And again. And again. At the moment, being such a new presence in the community, Katches admits, “We don’t have, I don’t think, the type of connection with readers that is going to have long lines of people at the coffee shop coming to see us.”
But: they’re hoping to. As word gets out about California Watch’s existence—and as the outlet amplifies that word through an active presence on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media—its audience is only growing.
And growing as well is the sensibility that a ‘newsroom’ need not be a place so much as a process—and a space both for journalists and the public they serve. The newsroom/café model is already being experimented with in the Czech Republic; the “Open Newsroom” project hints that it may soon be a more common phenomenon in the U.S. As news, generally, becomes an increasingly local affair—and as mobility becomes an increasingly common feature of contemporary life—newsrooms will evolve, as well. And that evolution just might involve a corner table, a scone, and a strong cup of coffee.
Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.