Several news outlets have been reporting that “coffeeshop journalism” is the wave of the future. It’s true. Some newsrooms are turning a portion of their buildings into cafe areas, where the community can come sit, have a cup of coffee or cappuccino and toss around ideas with reporters. Other reporters are going to area coffee shops looking for stories and sharing with readers how they can be more engaged. Either way, the field is changing, and we knew this was coming, and the best way to prepare for these changes is to embrace it and move with it.
So, as part of my (Kelly) next ideaLab project, I will be experimenting with the concept of coffee shop journalism and will be going out, sitting in a coffee shop and talking with people while I do my everyday reporting. This experiment will feature crowdsourcing techniques and mobile journalism (or MoJo for short). Last week, I made my first strides toward seeing how this would work. I was encouraged at the ideaLab meeting in Yardley, Pa., to contact the individuals and newspapers that have been successful in this type of crowdsourcing and get feedback to help me push further.
I started researching.
While some places, like Freehold InJersey, have a great concept going, there was no contact information so I couldn’t ask questions (hint, hint). I stumbled upon The Story Lab, a blog hosted by The Washington
Post. I found contact information for Marc Fisher, an editor at the Post that works with The Story Lab and I e-mailed him some questions such as the success of the project, what he thinks, how people became involved and the process they use. I asked about the changes in journalism and what he thinks in general. To my surprise, (no offense) I received an e-mail back this past weekend. This is what he said:
Hi Kelly Metz…
Thanks for your note and questions. You’re asking the right questions, and of course there are no certain answers as the entire field is in flux.
Here are some quick responses which you are free to post…give me a call if you need further details.
Story Lab has been a critical success and remains a work in progress in terms of connecting with an audience. What we’ve found is that it is very difficult to engage a continuing community on the very broad and vague topic of experimental journalism. My sense is that many of our regular readers on the blog are either journalists or people highly interested in or involved in journalism and writing.
That said, we have had much greater success in connecting with readers on individual stories and projects. When we propose experiments on the blog and promote them on our home pages and in the print paper, readers come forward in good numbers and with excellent help. We use Story Lab to put out reader queries on specific stories, to shape stories that reporters are just in the process of figuring out, and to engage readers in crowdsourcing and other such projects.
The most successful pitches to readers are those that ask them for specific information or experiences. The least successful pitches are those that seek to engage them on how we ought to be covering a particular issue or event. Conclusion: They don’t want to do our jobs for us, but they are happy and even eager to participate in the reporting process where their expertise or experiences might be valuable.
The way to get something like the Lab started is to just set it up and then populate the blog or standing feature with queries that aren’t just questions, but are rather partially reported stories. Readers tend not to respond when a reporter just asks, please help us report a story on, say, what’s happened to the stimulus money that came into your community. But if the reporter does some initial work and finds out that X number of dollars went into your community and went to these projects and employed this many people, and now that we’ve identified all that for you, we need your help in determining the long-term impact of those funds on the families that got that work or got the services that resulted from that work, then people seem very eager to help us out.
One lesson we’ve learned is that the rhetoric you see from hard-core web journalism advocates about how readers will take over basic journalistic functions from reporters and editors is a bunch of hooey. Readers don’t want to be journalists; they have their own jobs and their own lives. But they do need credible, relevant information about the communities where they live and about each other’s lives, and they will support journalists in making this resource better and more accurate. But reporters and editors still have to do the legwork, lead readers into the most important work, and set an agenda that connects with readers’ lives.
Somewhere in the kind of new relationship that we are both testing out and building on Story Lab and in similar places around the country is a new form of journalism. Alas, this exciting new work does little to rebuild journalism’s business model, and that is the far greater challenge facing the country and the industry.
Good luck in your own search for new ways to tell the stories of our readers’ lives. Please let me know what you end up doing.
I plan on taking this information and pushing through. This is my project for the next 30 days and I’ll keep you updated on how it goes.