This is the future of news – and it smells like coffee

Daily-Dispatch_20130509.jpgWhy more news organisations – particularly newspapers that are keenly in need of differentiation in order to reverse circulation decline – don’t do more civic journalism, I just don’t know.

Civic journalism is not hard to do, it enriches your content immeasurably by putting the reader right at the heart of the news agenda and it improves  the quantity and quality of engagement between the journalists and the community. Everyone needs a champion – especially in South Africa, where ordinary people are often dismissed callously by officials – and if you can be that for your community, they will reward you with enthusiastic support.

So it’s great to see  the Daily Dispatch – the little paper from East London that punches above its weight – revive civic journalism under new editor Bongani Siqoko with the recently launched Café Newsroom project.

Not to be confused by with “citizen journalism” (which is about getting readers to generate content and write stories), “civic journalism” involves journalists going out into the communities, holding neighbourhood meetings and inviting the people of the area to come and tell them what bugs them.  It could be pot holes in the street or derelict parks or it could be a crime wave sweeping the neighbourhood or a lack of public transport.

The reporters write about these issues and try to get them fixed. The point is that the journalists aren’t sitting in a newsroom wondering what concerns the people out there but are actually OUT THERE letting the people set the news agenda.

Under previous Dispatch  editor Andrew Trench, the paper leaped into  civic journalism. Now Siqoko has brought it back with the Café Newsroom project – launched this weekend with reporters inviting members of the public to join them for coffee at various venues.

[box]SEE ALSO: “A civic engagement”,  a 2009 analysis by Rod Amner of Rhodes University  of the Dispatch’s civic journalism programme launched by Andrew Trench  and “A Tale of Two Investigations”, 2010, also by  Amner. Both from the Rhodes Journalism Review.[/box]

Bongani Siqoko

Siqoko told Grubstreet recently that Café Newsroom is key to strengthening the connection between the paper and the community and to beef up the news of East London as a part of plan to grow readers.

Although the Transkei has been a circulation growth area for the paper in recent years, Siqoko also want to grow sales in the city itself.

“We’ve ignored East London for a very long time and it shows in our sales,” Siqoko said. “We want to be a radically local newspaper that is not parochial.”

[box]SEE ALSO: ‘We want to be a radically local newspaper that is not parochial’ – new Dispatch editor Bongani Siqoko, July 2013[/box]

Besides setting up in coffee shops to meet the public, Café Newsroom will also involve  every editorial staff member – Siqoko included – taking a part of the municipal area and actively keep an eye out for happenings and stories in that area to give to the news desk.

Grubstreet asked Dispatch metro editor Andrew Stone for his thoughts on the first “café newsroom”, held this weekend. Here are his impressions:

On Saturday the Daily Dispatch held its first two Café Newsroom events between 9am and 12pm at two locations in East London  – Café Bella coffee shop in Beacon Bay Retail Crossing and The Deck in Gonubie.

“Shanaaz Prince and I manned the Beacon Bay one and Mike Loewe and Aretha Linden the one in Gonubie.

“The response was very encouraging and as a result we’re planning to extend the concept next month and cover more areas.

“As expected, because the locations we had chosen were in upmarket suburbs, the majority of issues we dealt with were infrastructure/metro related – pot holes, sewerage, trash not being collected, etc.

“I found, though, that while some people came in to discuss one issue, you often picked up on other stories while chatting to them over coffee. In one example, a man and his wife came in to complain about the state of the road they live in but on chatting further, he said he was a property developer and gave us a good lead on a “property war” between two rival retail developments.

“We had a pastor come in to discuss issues affecting his community, a reader who urged us to take the concept to the townships (which we plan to do) and a couple of people who came from further afield like King William’s Town to meet us.

“Other issues raised were environmental concerns, we were alerted to various community upliftment projects, housing matters, health and, in one case, a reader came in to complain because we had not published his letter to the editor.”

Siqoko told Grubstreet that he was pleased with the response. “The two sessions were just the beginning. We will use what we have learned from the Gonubie and Beacon Bay café newsroom sessions to workshop our team here at the Dispatch and get them ready for a major roll-out at the end of next month.”

Power to the Daily Dispatch – and the readers who took up the opportunity to meet with the Dispatch crew and have a natter.  It’s the future of news – and it smells like coffee.

Disclosure: The writer is married to Andrew Trench, previous Dispatch editor. He no longer works for the paper or its owners, Times Media Group.