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Connecticut newspaper's open newsroom wins APME award for innovation
TORRINGTON, Conn. (AP) ' The three reporters gathered for The Register Citizen's afternoon news meeting pitch stories to a wider audience than their editors: A camera mounted atop a newsroom television broadcasts the meeting online for readers who want to comment or make suggestions or requests.
It's part of the public newsroom approach at the Torrington newspaper, which was honored Thursday with the award for Innovator of the Year by the Associated Press Media Editors association.
Anyone from the community is welcome to ask questions online during the meetings, attend in person or stroll up to the desk of any reporter or editor all day Monday through Saturday. The newspaper is closed on Sunday.
Staffers say the unimpeded access required some adjustments but has helped them connect with readers. And they say their worst fears about gadflies taking over the newsroom have not been realized.
Although nobody chimed in during Thursday's story meeting, Managing Editor Emily Olson said readers often pose questions in online chat sessions during the news meetings. Earlier this week, she said, some were asking about issues including the status of the cleanup from an overturned oil tanker.
"One person asked, 'What do you know about that accident at 2 a.m.?'" Olson said. "'Oh, we don't know. We'll call the (state police) troop right now.'"
The newspaper moved into an airy, industrial building that once housed a sewing plant in Torrington, in the foothills of the Connecticut Berkshire mountains, to launch the open newsroom. It has a newsroom cafe along with a public area where anyone is welcome to watch television news, go online or access newspaper archives going back to the 1800s on microfilm.
In a town without a bookstore, the newspaper also sells used books in one corner of the cafe, with proceeds going to pay for newspapers in schools.
The foot traffic has ebbed and flowed with the weather and the schedule of local schools, but newspaper staffers say some people have been coming in regularly since the early summer. A handful of people were reading and using the computers Thursday afternoon.
"It's very relaxing, and it's free," said Dave Holmes, a 61-year-old former driver for the newspaper's parent company who was watching CNN in the lounge area just off the newsroom.
Matthew DeRienzo, publisher of The Register Citizen and group editor for the Journal Register Co., said at the APME awards ceremony in Denver that the redesign came at the suggestion of staffers. He said the changes haven't increased the newspaper's daily circulation of 7,000 but have boosted Web traffic.
"We've all written this column. We've all said as publishers and editors, 'Come on in. Our door is open,'" DeRienzo said. "But the truth is, that's intimidating to people. An average person is not really going to come into your office."
Also nominated for the Innovator of the Year award were The Kansas City (Mo.) Star, for its Midwest Democracy project, and Pennsylvania newspapers, for an APME-AP Broken Budgets collaboration reviewing staffing at the state Legislature.
Register Citizen reporters and editors say that while the direct engagement with the public has helped find stories they would miss otherwise, such as that of a man who fought town zoning officials to save his condemned farm stand, they also have had to develop strategies to handle visits that are not always welcome.
"When it's something that I'm really under the gun on, I'll put the earphones in," reporter Ricky Campbell said.
He said if he sees a colleague wearing headphones, he will go out of his way to field visitors' questions or requests for assistance.
Despite one visit from a man who asked him to do a story on a government conspiracy involving chemicals in jet exhaust, he said other readers who stopped by to chat have given him valuable insight into the communities he covers.
Editor Rick Thomason said that the activity can be distracting in a newsroom where everyone occupies open cubicles except the publisher and that visitors have not been shy about offering criticism. But he said the newspaper, which has a staff of about 15 people, has not been overrun by naysayers coming in to nitpick or point out errors.
"We just don't have people screaming at us and trying to dominate our attention," Thomason said. "I'm sure it will happen someday, but it hasn't so far."
Nobody from the public stopped by for Thursday's news meeting, but Thomason said six people were watching, which is about average. He said the newspaper has found as many as 25 to 30 people will log in later to watch the archived video.
Asked by another newspaper editor to name the biggest way the openness has changed the newsroom, DeRienzo had a quick answer: "Less profanity."
Associated Press writer Kristen Wyatt in Denver contributed to this report.