Experiments in the Open Newsroom Concept

Swapping story scoops for reader input

OpenFile, a Canadian online-news organization, has modeled its editorial decisions around reader suggestions. The organization covers seven cities, from Halifax on the east coast to Vancouver on the west. After an idea or even simply a question about a community is submitted, OpenFile reviews it, and if it looks promising, they “open a file,” which allows readers to see the suggestion and give feedback, while OpenFile assigns a reporter. The coverage and subsequent community response unfolds on the site for all to see, sometimes resulting in “files” with multiple layers: photo slideshows and video accompanying the text article, and, for some stories, extensive community input in the story’s forum. (Disclosure: CJR contributor Craig Silverman is the editorial director of OpenFile.)

There is, of course, a downside to being this transparent. “We’ve run stories and then seen them on the front page of a newspaper that next day,” says Kathy Vey, editor in chief of OpenFile. But this is to be expected when story scoops are no longer the ultimate goal. OpenFile is not only focused on being the place to go for community news, but also the place to go with story tips and interaction with local residents. “Sure, we had the web exclusive,” says Vey, “but you have to give up on who’s getting it first and ask who’s providing value to the reader. Is that one moment in time when someone has the exclusive important?”

Running an open newsroom also involves inviting readers to become a part of the story process. Not surprisingly, suggestions can come from people’s personal lives. “We sometimes get people with an ax to grind,” says Vey. “But the idea is that anybody can suggest a story, everybody has a viewpoint, and we’re transparent about where these stories come from.”

Submissions that on the surface seem like personal gripes have, at times, revealed underlying tensions within the community. That happened with a story in Toronto, when a neighborhood dispute erupted over a family’s plans to tear down a 100-year-old cottage. A neighbor requested the site be given heritage preservation status in order to stop this family, who had recently purchased the property, from building a large new house, which included a ramp for the mother who was paralyzed from the neck down. A friend of the family suggested the story to OpenFile, and “it really caught fire,” says Vey. “It was just a story about one house on one street, but the city councilor was involved; heritage activists, accessibility advocates, and the architecture community all weighed in.” OpenFile hosted an extensive comment thread, which even gave rise to a hashtag on Twitter—#204Beech, the address of the house. “The story was enormously successful. It was started by a friend of this family, and we were transparent about that,” says Vey.

Some news organizations are pursuing the OpenFile model on a smaller scale. The Guardian is the largest and most established of news organizations to go the transparent-news-list route. The paper’s working story list for each day is made available on Google Docs. As the editors update what they are working on, the list on the site changes with it.

The Guardian also includes Twitter contacts for the reporters who are assigned to the stories. “We thought the most effective way of being open was to give readers a way of directly communicating with reporters,” says Dan Roberts, the paper’s national news editor. He says this is different than just asking the audience for tips, which newsrooms have always done; here, they are making a conscious decision to have this interaction happen on Twitter, rather than providing the reporters’ e-mail addresses for private communication. “We don’t want readers to feel like they are doing our jobs for us, but rather make them part of the conversation and the process,” says Roberts.

If a story they are working on is an exclusive, they keep the phrasing vague. Roberts says the ambiguous wording used for bigger stories is “largely not for secrecy,” but more because once the details of a story are placed on the newslist, “you might as well just write the whole story.”

The trade-off to letting everyone—including their competitors—know what’s coming, says Roberts, is the feedback they receive from readers, allowing the paper’s staff to more easily parse what’s important from the public’s perspective. “The more people are engaged in helping us decide our priorities, the more likely it is our priorities will line up with those of our readers,” says Roberts. “They are helping shape what we do, and not only do the stories get better, it is by definition what people want to read.”

At the Morning Sun, a Journal Register Company-owned paper in central Michigan, editor Rick Mills has sought the community’s input for the past twelve years. He does it the old-fashioned way, via in-person meetings. Mills said the meetings started because he felt “uncomfortable speaking for the whole community,” and since the paper’s staff is small, he was the only one in charge of writing the editorials. He encouraged readers to attend the paper’s weekly planning meetings, and they did; but soon residents began showing up early and requesting to speak with Mills privately about “specific things they wanted to be heard on.”

After about a year of the open meetings, he wrote a column inviting people to apply to be volunteers on a community editorial board instead. This format has withstood the past decade, and Mills says the expertise they found in their community—retired cops, a hospice director, and a retired librarian, among others—has helped their journalism.

Mills tells of one story in particular, in 2001, when the paper was working on a story about a new concealed weapons law in Michigan. The state moved from having a “may issue” law, which required a proven need for concealment, with the burden of proof on the requester, to being a “shall issue” state, which took control away from county gun boards and instead only granted the board the power to fail to issue permits for specific reasons—such as mental health issues or felony convictions. Mills says he and his colleagues “all leaned heavily anti-gun” but were influenced by their community editorial member, Norm Burmeister, a “realtor, outdoorsman, and self proclaimed advocate for all things firearms.”

“Our debate and his input definitely influenced our editorial position and our coverage,” says Mills. “Our editorials took a more wait-and-see approach. Maybe cautious optimism with some sincere concerns rather than unabashed opposition.”

The Morning Sun are veterans of what is now a larger effort from the Journal Register Company to move its papers to build “open newsrooms” in efforts to increase engagement. The Register Citizen, a JRC owned newspaper in Torrington, Vermont Connecticut, got quite a lot of buzz for its efforts, even receiving the Innovator of the Year award from The Associated Press Media Editors.* The paper opened a cafĂ© in the newsroom, started live-streaming its editorial meetings, and instituted an open-door policy for readers who wanted to drop by the newsroom and talk.

But just because people show up doesn’t guarantee the discussions will be constructive. Emily Olson, the managing editor at the Register Citizen, says they’ve gotten some good story ideas, but sometimes people come in with information that isn’t newsworthy. “Our time is probably what suffers more than anything, but that’s a sacrifice we have to accept,” says Olson. “I think dealing with the public, there’s always going to be ups and downs, but with all the changes in newspapers, it’s important for us be accessible.”

The Register Citizen holds a news meeting at 10 am, which is communicated with readers via a chat-only discussion using live blogging service CoveritLive. Then, at 4pm, a video-stream of the meeting goes on the site along with the CoveritLive stream. Olson says the amount of people regularly attending these meetings has “tapered off” since it was introduced in late 2010, and indeed, a few visits to the 4 pm live stream have confirmed this; there’s usually about a handful of people sitting in on the livestream. Jason Siedzik, a reporter for the Register Citizen, says that there hasn’t been a “whole lot of viewers” on the meetings. “The biggest effect I’ve seen is that our competition has been getting stories based on what we’re doing,” says Siedzik. “I know we have been getting vague about certain stories if they’re big, because there’s been some things the other paper has published that they would have no idea about aside from us.”

Rick Thomason, the Register Citizen’s editor, says they make judgment calls about what they will talk about in their meetings since there’s “some stories we just don’t want to get beat on.” But he says that “95 percent of what we have, we talk about” and feels that the insight and community interaction make up for any ideas they end up providing to other media. The Register Citizen has plans in the works to place a list of what they are working on to the paper’s homepage soon, and several other JRC owned papers have moved in a similar direction.

Both the Guardian and the Register Citizen’s editors said they are still experimenting with the transparent newsroom idea. Kathy Vey at OpenFile says they are still tweaking their approach as well. She says that seeing traditional publications move in the direction that OpenFile has fully embraced is encouraging, “It makes me happy to see other newsrooms trying this out,” says Vey. “This is still the frontier, everyone is still investigating what works, and the open newsroom is a part of that exploring.”

Correction: We originally reported that the Register Citizen newspaper was based in Vermont. The paper is actually based in Connecticut, as we should have known, given that we published a 4,000-word story about the paper in our July/August issue. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , ,