Friday, March 4, 2011

Bringing the outside in; reflecting on the Times-Union's decision to close Troy, Saratoga news bureaus

Technology has certainly made it easier for journalists to interact with their readers. It is not only tools such as email, Facebook and Twitter that enables communication (and hopefully collaboration). But mobile technology - smart phones, netbooks and tablets - ensures reporters don't have to spend half or more of their workday in a newsroom; the gadgets free journalists to write and submit photos from anywhere. The smart ones plant themselves a good part of the day at coffee houses, libraries, parks, malls, beaches, courthouses, stadiums and elsewhere to increase their contact with the community.

To that end the Times Union announced this week it was closing bureaus in two communities where our parent company, the Journal Register Company, has newspapers: Saratoga and Troy. The TU admitted in the story on the bureau closings that saving money was a factor in the decision but spun the move to say it "could increase - rather than diminish - the presence of Times Union journalists in either city". The theory being, the story explained, if reporters didn't have an office to go to they might report from those aforementioned public places. But also note they used the word "could" not "would".

I am not going to quibble with any newspaper's attempts to save money. It has been a tough couple years financially for the industry and 2011 isn't shaping up to be any different. But I do think it is a mistake to pretend that a newspaper not having a physical place in the community is not important. For one, it adds to the tax base, and in these tough times when municipalities are strapped that support is important. But much more critical is having roots in the community. By at least one definition a community is, in part, a social group of whose members reside in a specific locality. By not being physically present, one automatically earns an "outsider" label. Yeah, there are digital communities, too. But in this context being able to identify your brand as truly being local requires one to be, well, local.

I would have been less inclined to publicly comment on this development if the TU story hadn't mentioned that our company is practicing "coffee-shop journalism" within some of its buildings, a reference to the much-publicized recent opening of the newsroom to the public at our sister paper in Torrington, Conn. But the point that was lost on the writer is that JRC's approach is to bring the public into its newsroom. We want to not only have our writers exposed to the community, we want the community to physically participate in our news process ... much of which happens inside our buildings as we make decisions about what stories to cover, how much visibility those stories are going to receive in our products, and so on. Moreover, we want to collaborate other ways - artistically (let's invite in a local band to perform and live stream it), educationally (sponsor workshops, book groups, demonstrations and lectures), socially and so on. And we want them to write, blog and shoot photos and video alongside us. 

We're constantly pushing our reporters and photographers out the door and giving them tools to spend as much time in the community as possible. But we also believe we have to be in the thick of things locally, to get as much facetime as possible with our readership, to have them know where we are when they want us, and to support local infrastructure. The Record and Saratogian offices have been physically open for more than a century but they have never been as open as they are today. And they will remain that way.

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