Understanding Your Community: KQED's Experiments with an Open Newsroom

By Ian Hill, Online Community Engagement Specialist, KQED News
Listen to your community. Spend time with the public you serve.

Sure, that sounds like a simple philosophy. But it can seem like a challenge to many media organizations, particularly news outlets. Newspapers and broadcasters are trying to get by with fewer journalists, and the demands placed on the remaining reporters have increased. As a result, journalists are finding that they have less time to spend in the neighborhoods they cover, and a gap of understanding has opened between news organizations and their communities.

That gap needs to be bridged for a news organization to be successful. Before working in public media I’d been a reporter at local daily newspapers for about 12 years, and I had always pursued stories that I thought would impact the community I was covering. But those stories rarely materialized until I had devoted time to meeting local residents, hanging out in their neighborhoods and understanding the challenges they were facing.

Given the realities of the modern news business, how does a reporter get to know their community today?

One possibility is to set aside time in reporters’ schedules specifically to meet the residents they were covering on the residents’ home turf. A model for this has been established by the Center for Investigative Reporting, an organization that partnered with my employer, KQED News.

They call it an open newsroom. Think of it like a meetup or a mixer for journalists and the community. Reporters tell residents they are going to be at a coffee shop in their neighborhood at a specific date and time, and any resident is welcome to come and chat.

In late May, KQED News and The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, worked together to organize open newsrooms at coffeehouses and lounges in five San Francisco Bay Area communities. The response was almost overwhelming – every venue we visited was packed with residents looking to share stories about what was happening in their neighborhoods. We heard about the politics behind local parks, the fight over regional development and the struggles of school systems, among other topics.

“KQED staff all returned energized from their meet ups at the open newsrooms,” said Julia McEvoy, KQED’s senior news editor. “They enjoyed connecting with people, hearing what residents and neighbors thought about our coverage; reporters and anchors alike came back with ideas and input on what we should be covering in these various communities.”

“This was a direct way to discuss why we do what we do with people in the Bay Area and then hear from them what issues they believe we should be covering,” McEvoy added.

Since the Open Newsrooms, residents of several other communities have asked us to visit. We’re looking at organizing more open newsrooms later this year.

Interested in trying something similar? Here’s the process we followed when organizing our open newsrooms:

It requires some dedication – I spent the better part of a month promoting our events. But if you put in the work, you might find your news organization rewarded with a new perspective gained from spending more time in the community you cover.

Select a Good Partner
Try and pick partners whose strengths complement those of your organization. As the most-listened-to radio station in San Francisco, KQED is a powerful tool for promotion. However, we had no experience organizing open newsrooms. The Center for Investigative Reporting had experience with open newsrooms, but lacked the promotional channels of a traditional media outlet. By partnering, we were able to use the strengths of each others’ organizations to create successful events.

Pick Comfortable Meeting Spots
It’s important that the community feels welcome in your open newsroom venue. We held most of our events at bars and coffeehouses where the community already gathered. If you’re not sure which gathering spots to pick, try reaching out to prominent nonprofits and organizations in a community and ask where their employes hang out.

Promotion is the key to the success of an open newsroom. You have to use all resources at your disposal to invite the community to your event. In advance of our open newsrooms we sent email invites to more than 150 community and neighborhood organizations and asked them to spread the word among their employees and supporters. Our promotion also included mentions on radio as well as ads in local newspapers, on local newspaper websites and on Facebook. We used the hashtag #opennews to share information on Twitter.

Listen To Everyone Who Shows Up
Residents attend open newsrooms because they want to talk to your reporters. Make sure your reporters take the time to listen to everyone who attends. The conversations don’t need to be long; most of the discussions at our events lasted 10 minutes or less. But it’s important that every person who attends feels like they’ve had the opportunity to be heard.

Act on What You Hear
This will be the most difficult challenge for most news organizations. After all, you can’t promise to cover a subject discussed at an open newsroom until you’ve done more reporting to ensure that the subject is newsworthy. However, the residents who attend your events will expect that you’ll act on what they tell you. So consider treating what you hear as if it were listener, viewer or reader feedback. Try and find space for the comments on your opinion pages or in your listener response segment. It will help show that you’re serious about responding to the concerns of the community you cover.

To learn more about KQED's Open News Room, see Ian's post on the NCME blog

How is your station engaging with the community? Have you hosted an open newsroom? We'd love to hear about it! Please post comments or questions below.

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