Is ‘the editorial board meeting’ defunct in a truly open newsroom?

When we first announced plans to open The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe in December, the bulk of the criticism was centered on two themes.

The public is invited to attend and participate in daily story meetings at The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe. The meetings are also broadcast live on RegisterCitizen.Com, where readers are able to contribute comments and ask questions via live chat.

From critics within the newspaper industry, primarily, we heard that it would be impractical, disruptive and somehow tainting of the “professional” process of journalism to allow the public to “look over our shoulders” while we work. There’s a whole slew of arguments knocking down that premise, but there’s also our experience to date, which for us, is more relevant and powerful.

From readers, one of the biggest concerns was that an “open newsroom” would open the door to special interest groups or individuals with pet causes having easy access to reporters and editors and therefore being more likely to influence (i.e., twist) their reporting.

My immediate answer to this was that people representing special interests, pet causes and axes to grind get their message to reporters and editors already. A newsroom that is not just “open,” but also welcoming, with an active agenda of community engagement, will start to balance that influence by hearing from and connecting with the audience as a whole. The more open we are, the more voices you’ll see represented in our reporting, and hopefully, the less chance there will be of missing or skewed context.

A building block of our model is that transparency builds trust. The public is invited to attend and participate in our daily story meetings, which are also live-streamed on RegisterCitizen.Com. When we faced an internal debate recently on guidelines for staff who moderate online story comments, we distributed, heard input and discussed a draft policy via social media and the web, leading up to a public meeting, also live-streamed, in the cafe’s classroom.

Which brings me back to those concerns about special interests having new-found or undue influence over journalists in an “open newsroom.”

Among many assumptions we’ve had to question in attempting to stay true to our “open” model is that old newspaper tradition of “the editorial board meeting.”

Since opening on Dec. 13, we haven’t had any.

Oh, we’ve had requests. But when you explain to the industry association, or, for example, the PR flack for an energy sector company fighting a zoning battle with local residents who called recently, that the public will be invited to listen in on – and ask questions – the value, to them, of an “editorial board meeting” is apparently diminished.

And that has been eye-opening.

What kind of influence have these closed-door meetings had on our reporting? Why would these sources prefer no meeting at all to one where the public can listen in and ask questions? Maybe they’ve gotten used to pushing their spin on editors and reporters and seeing it published without the hard questions or context that scrutiny by the audience would provide?

As we move forward into uncharted waters at The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe, I see potential for us (in the context of many other points of community engagement) to build a new kind of editorial board meeting, where, as media blogger Judy Sims recently envisioned, we “(facilitate) the coming together of individuals, organizations and governments to solve a city’s great problems …

For newspapers with a “closed newsroom” (I think I’ll start referring to traditional print media models that way until Journal Register Company’s “digital first” philosophy is embraced by the rest of the industry) , it would be interesting to see the impact that some simple steps toward transparency would have.

Does the editorial on the energy bill, or sales tax exemptions, make note of the editorial board meeting the newspaper had a few days before with the trade association affected by the issue?

Even if you’re not inviting the public, why not list for your audience what “official sources” are getting this closed-door, formal access to your editors and reporters?

And if you won’t let the public in to those meetings, why not, at least, broadcast live (or even a taped but complete version) video on the web?

Published by mattderienzo

Matt DeRienzo has worked in journalism for more than 25 years as a reporter, editor, publisher, director of news and journalism nonprofit executive director. As vice president of news at Hearst Connecticut, he led a newsroom of more than 175 people, instilling a culture of investigative reporting, and growing audience while launching a paid digital subscription model at six daily newspapers. While there, he oversaw a national investigation into sex abuse at Boys & Girls Clubs that was recently recognized with an Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) national award, as well as the New England First Amendment Coalition’s Michael Donoghue Freedom of Information Award. As the first full-time executive director of LION, a nonprofit supporting local independent online news organizations across the country, he started with an annual budget of $30,000 and helped bring in more than $2 million over three years from funders including the Knight Foundation, Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, Inasmuch Foundation (Ethics & Excellence in Journalism), and Facebook, while tripling the organization’s membership. As a publisher, he was an early leader in reader and community engagement, launching North America’s first “newsroom café,” which opened a Connecticut daily newspaper’s doors to the public, and which was recognized with the Associated Press Managing Editors’ Innovator of the Year Award. As editor of the New Haven Register, he led a team of more than 100 journalists borrowed from around the country and on his own staff in covering the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School and its aftermath. During his tenure in New Haven, the Register also received the Robert C. McGruder Award for Leadership in Newsroom Diversity from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Most recently, he has done consulting work for Local Media Association on fundraising from foundations and individual giving in support of local news organizations. He co-managed the Facebook Journalism Project’s recent COVID-19 Relief grant program, which received more than 2,000 applications and is part of $25 million in funding Facebook has earmarked to help local news organizations through this crisis. He was a Sulzberger fellow at Columbia University in 2018, and has taught reporting, editing and multimedia journalism as an adjunct professor at the University of New Haven and Quinnipiac University. His column about the journalism industry has appeared in Editor & Publisher magazine since January 2016. He is a full-time single dad of two who has been active in Northwest Connecticut as a board member of the Susan B. Anthony Project, a domestic and sexual violence support and advocacy, and previously as a longtime United Way board member and two-time annual fund chairman.

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