August 5, 2010

The next time you visit your favorite coffee shop, consider how it would look if it were transformed into a “news café” — a place where journalists would work on stories and interact with patrons to find ideas, cultivate sources and show them how stories are reported.
Some journalists who have begun experimenting with this idea in recent months say working out of coffee shops does a lot more than just satisfy their caffeine cravings. It has helped them build trust with their audiences and reminded them that to really understand a community, you have to be in it. has set up a news cafe, and the Czech Republic has several of them. Hyperlocal blog Freehold InJersey created a newsroom café last month. And The Washington Post sent seven reporters to cafes throughout its coverage area for a “Coffeehouse Newsroom experiment.”

I talked to journalists at some of these organizations to find out what they’ve learned and how they’ve benefited from the experience. Here are five takeaways.

Promote news literacy

As part of its Coffeehouse Newsroom experiment, The Washington Post sent seven reporters to local coffee shops throughout Virginia, Maryland and D.C. Reporters were asked to go to the coffee shops, find a story and file it that day. The stories were posted on the Post’s “Story Lab” blog that night, and readers were asked to vote for a winning story, which was then published in the Post.
Steve Hendrix, one of the local enterprise reporters who wrote from St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub in Virginia, followed the #storylab Twitter feed for the experiment. At one point, he realized that someone in the coffee shop had watched him interview his sources and tweeted about it.
Hendrix said in a phone interview that he was happy to see that a small number of people were thinking about how he reported and wrote the story.
“You’re doing a job that’s usually intensely singular and private, and there just aren’t that many windows into the process,” Hendrix said. “The more people understand our process, the more credibility we have when we say we’re trying to be neutral, nonpartisan brokers of information here.”

News literacy was one of the goals behind the project. Local Enterprise Editor Marc Fisher, who spearheaded the coffeehouse experiment, acknowledged that some people don’t care about journalists’ work. But that may be because they never tried to understand it.

“I’m convinced that there’s very little understanding in the general readership about how the sausage gets made,” Fisher said by phone. “While not everyone is a news junkie and wants to know about every step in the process, I think it’s important that we humanize reporters.”

Build trust within the community

Colleen Curry, editor of Freehold InJersey, a community news blog run by the Asbury Park Press and Gannett, works out of Zebu Forno Cafe in Freehold, N.J., several hours a day, five days a week.

The coffee shop agreed to let Freehold InJersey create a “newsroom” there, which consists of few chairs, a computer the public can use to look at the blog, and a sign that says “The Journalist Is In.”

No one has to get past a receptionist at the front of a newsroom to talk to Curry. In the coffee shop, she’s readily accessible.

“I think readers really notice and respond when their local news source feels local — that is, embedded in, committed to, and passionate about the same small town that they are,” Curry said by phone. “Covering a council meeting every few weeks is all well and good, and I know that some regional papers can only afford to do this, but the spotty coverage makes it seem like they don’t really care.”

Her hope, she said, is that by surrounding herself with community members, she’ll establish a better connection with them and give them reasons to trust her.

“I think big news corporations are often accused — maybe rightly — of being out of touch with the communities they cover,” Curry said. “But I’m in the middle of the community. I’m calling up people on the phone that other people sitting around the coffee shop will know. They aren’t secret conversations happening behind closed doors.”

Similar to Freehold InJersey, has created a coffeehouse newsroom on the first floor of its building. Staff use the coffee shop to mingle with customers each day.

“We had reached the point where traditional newspapers had become impenetrable to their audience,” Tony Dearing, the site’s chief content officer, told my colleague Rick Edmonds in a recent interview. “I’d defy you to get past the security guards into newsrooms.”

Find story ideas, new angles

Many editors consider their best reporters the ones they never see — because they’re out in the community. Fisher at The Washington Post said the reporters who worked out of coffee shops for the day found sources and stories they may not have otherwise come across.

“We’re not about to mortgage our editorial responsibilities to the readers every day or on every story,” Fisher said, “but I think it added to our usual mix, which can be more predictable.”

Curry, of Freehold InJersey, said the coffee shop is a powerhouse of story ideas, especially for a hyperlocal site. She often overhears people talk about small happenings around town — a malfunctioning traffic light at a major intersection, for instance, or an injured turtle holding up traffic on the highway.

“These are the types of stories I find out by being in the coffee shop, not 10 miles away in a cubicle alone,” Curry said.

Recently, while sitting in the coffee shop, she looked across the street and saw signs posted on the front doors of several businesses. Curry walked across the street and learned that the businesses had closed due to damage from a recent fire. She knew about the fire, but not that it caused so many businesses to close.

“I probably never would have realized if I had been sitting in the newspaper office — unless I had driven by the businesses,” Curry said. “You’re more likely to trip upon a story when you’re out in the public.”

Find citizen journalists who can contribute to your site

Curry has recruited some of the coffee shop’s patrons to be citizen journalists for Freehold InJersey. About 10 percent of the site’s content is written by citizen journalists, but Curry said she’d like to see it grow to half.

So far, six new citizen journalists started contributing after finding out about the opportunity on their visit to Zebu Forno Cafe. A local freelancer expressed interest, as did a high school student and the owner of the coffee shop itself.

“A lot of people come up to me,” she said. “They’re not just wondering what we’re doing there, but why we’re doing it, how it’s working, and how they can help.”

Cultivate sources who are connected to the community

Along with signing up citizen journalists, Curry has developed a network of new sources since she started working out of the coffee shop. Often, they talk to her as if she were a neighbor or friend.

“I have my town regulars who stop in every day and have to update me about what happened in town after I packed up and went home for the night,” Curry said. “It’s this constant, ongoing conversation about the town we’re in. It’s kind of quasi-‘Cheers,’ where everyone knows your name.”

Recently, Curry was chatting with one of the regulars about local landlords who were upset because the city had raised their licensing fees. The source suggested a new angle to a story that Freehold InJersey had already published and brainstormed how Curry could report it.

Curry is considering pursuing the story and said she wants the source to join her while she’s on assignment so he can have the experience of helping her report it.

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Her approach to sharing the reporting experience, and finding stories in a coffee shop, may not work for all journalists. But if the past month is any indication of the benefits that coffeehouse newsrooms can yield, Curry is hopeful.

“Big hopes, a tiny experimental coffeehouse newsroom,” she said. “We’ll see how far we can go.”

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Mallary Tenore Tarpley is a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication and the associate director of UT’s Knight…
Mallary Tenore Tarpley

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