Adding Community to Every College

It all seems so logical: If you want to connect with your neighbors, invite them over.

The public is invited to join daily news meetings at the Register Citizen. (From RegisterCitizen.com)

That’s the concept behind one of my favorite experiments going on in journalism these days.  Just a few weeks ago, the Torrington (Conn.) Register Citizen opened a newsroom café – coffee and muffins and all – where the public is invited to be a part of the process.  Residents can explore the paper’s 134 years of archive material, mingle with reporters and weigh in at afternoon editorial meetings.

But for every Register Citizen, there are a dozen other newspapers seemingly unsure of what to do with newly discovered extra space in their newsrooms (the result of a decade of downsizing), with an archival bounty and with the desire to connect with the community.

This is where universities can step in.  These institutions of advanced learning, these manufactured communities, have built the fiscal infrastructure, developed the resources to archive materials and honed the skills to effectively teach people.

What if universities created open newsrooms that journalists from hyperlocal or community news sites could use collaboratively? Or, what if a local newspaper opened its doors so that a university-run news site could share its space?

In either case, there would be rental agreements and newsroom rules, but the physical barriers – the exterior brick walls – would be nonexistent. I bet it would enhance news coverage overall.  Call it the coworking spaces effect, as stories are swapped over the coffee machine and opportunities to share reporting projects begin to naturally appear.

Imagine, too, if these spaces became super-newsrooms, where the public played a role.  You could actually tap into the knowledge of neighbors.  In the case of the Register Citizen, editors created an exhibit featuring photos from the memorable Flood of 1955 to attract residents.  And they flocked, sharing their stories.

In addition to running community news sites and serving as fiscal agents for nonprofit news organizations, it turns out colleges and universities are also pretty good at teaching journalism.  What if they gave away a small dose of know-how in an attempt to improve journalism in the community?

The Register Citizen is offering a few specialized sessions for community members with class topics like Blogging 101, Storytelling, and The Freedom of Information Act.  This repurposes knowledge that the paper’s staff has already acquired.  It’s not to say attendees will contribute to the paper, nor should they, but it connects them with the newsroom in a way that goes beyond sharing a scone.

I point at the Register Citizen’s experiment because it epitomizes a “let’s try it” attitude that both newspapers and universities should embrace, and more importantly, it connects an institution with its users in a slightly unconventional way.  Publisher Matt DeRienzo reported more guests on day one at the Newsroom Café than over the course of a full year in the traditional newsroom.

With this attempt, the paper has become both a host of and a destination for neighborly gatherings.  It reminds residents that it is part of the community.

Universities can — and should — do that, too.

This post is a response to David Cohn’s query as he relaunches the Carnival of Journalism.  The theme this month is the role of higher education in journalism.

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