Re-establishing Neighborhood Connections

Convener and note taker: Laura Sellers-Earl


  • Rosemary Goudreau
  • Dave Heun
  • Rick Hall
  • Ken Sands
  • Dave Hennigan
  • Stephen Silha
  • Caesar Andrews
  • Kristin Gilger


We started off questioning Ken Sands about the Spokesman Review program where the paper pops for pizza to gets groups to talk about issues. Ken says they had no idea if the first pizza party was going to work, “you just have to jump off.”

They used the guilt factor to get group leaders to turn in reports on a special form – it’s free pizza, you better do something. He says you need a specific topic and advised Rick to state in the story announcing the offer that interest groups need not apply to keep those from taking over a discussion.

The paper’s role was to provide the ideas and hand out the pizza coupons. A trade might be possible, but the Spokesman didn’t use trades.

“Every time we interact, I’m amazed by the volume and diversity of opinion that comes out,” Ken says.

Neal Pierce is a specialist in local government who can be called in (for a price) to help determine status of situation (

Rick Hall gave a thumbs up to ‘civic mapping. “It’s wonderful.” Gumshoe journalism. You can find out what’s really bothering the people, but he has a frustration with how much time it takes.

Dave Heun recalled one editor at the convention saying that he’d send reporters out and not allow them back in the building until they had story ideas. Rick then suggested maybe we schedule days, telling reporters, “This is your day to hang out,” in the city and gather story ideas.

Dave said the way to really get to know your neighbors is to hold a progressive wine party. By the seventh house, you’re the best of friends. He then stated that right now, his marketing people want to turn everything into a contest.

Stephen Silha proposed inviting people to come up with solutions to bioterrorism. “Our systems are not adequate. Appeal to their patriotism and that home-based solutions have always been what works.”

Caesar Andrews added that even as readers feel powerless they feel emboldened.

We have a role, especially if you think about the newspaper being the tie that binds. We should be reaching out, engaging, giving that emboldenedness a focus.

Rick wondered if the neighborhood groups could be structured like a neighborhood watch, looking out for each other. The paper does belong to the community.

Rosemary Goudreau points out that Ken has been doodling, which he then shares with the group. It seemed to represent what we were trying to create.

Normal mode of communicating is from the newspaper down. How do you help readers communicate with the community, the community with the newspapers or to the readers?

Steve felt it was important to bring this up with the other departments of the paper. Own it together.

It was noted that the shape resembled a pizza slice and Ken said that slice helps the readers connect with the community, but it might be a different way and connection in each community.

A lot of times, readers are amazed you want to listen and urge the Spokesman to ‘keep asking questions.’

Caesar Andrews noted that we must translate this to the newsroom.

Ken said that newsrooms see the pizza as a tacky ploy.  They’ll buy in if you figure out ways to make their jobs easier and more effective. For example, Ken polled his people in his e-mail database the day of the attacks for an afternoon edition. It was a man on the street story that nobody had to do.

Ken mentioned they have a Golden Pen award for a letter of the week and letter of the month. Winners then gather for dinner with the publisher once a year. Each winner gets a gold pen when they win. Side note: You can get a pen also if you subscribe to the paper.

Caesar: I can remember having a reader advisory group and it was great, and then it ended. How do you gauge success and how do you sustain it?

I said my measure of success would be when the city council was packed with my city’s neighbors who were informed about the issues.

Rick said he saw a model in the Madison paper and their tangible results in school test scores.

Ken said “We piss off people one at a time. The converse of that is enlighten people one at a time.”

Civic journalism gives readers a familiar face when the newspaper interacts with the community.

Steve said for reporters, ideas such as this are like an add-on to an already full schedule. They’re just overwhelmed by civic journalism.

Ken suggested that newspapers try civic journalism for the first time at elections. Most reporters agree election coverage stinks. Make it a hiring process where the paper enables people of the community to do the hiring.

Steve: Why not do it for people getting driver’s licenses or go through the building permit process? How are things working in our basic systems?

Kristin: People experience government different than we report.

Steve: Show people that what they experience is part of the process.

Caesar: These are all great ideas, some require a re-ordering. We all have different resources. Are we equipped? How do you push it? There are training and mindset issues.

Laura: What about instead of giving each reporter a day or days to reconnect, what if we say, go down to the coffee shop for a couple of hours and either interact with those there or simply soak in what they are saying.

Kristin: I agree but would send them to divorce court. I think what they’d hear in the coffee house is things we already know.

Laura: But those are the things that are important to our readers, the ones we may know but not put in print.  There may be an opportunity to get an angle into that coverage we hadn’t considered before.

Ken: Even better, go someplace you’ve never been before that is uncomfortable. Gets to issues of diversity.

Rick: As managers, we need to focus on newsroom buy-in. We’re baby-stepping.

Ken: Maybe we can get reporters out by saying ‘spend your extra time out on the streets, not on 10″ stories. Produce three covers a week instead.

Dave: A good portion of our readers are skimming government information but have master’s degree level knowledge of Cub Scouts. That’s valuable. He has a page called Front Porch for whatever people send them. Of course, it eats into news hole, and they are considering putting it online.

Rosemary: I don’t think we’re going to places where government intersects with people. For instance, she recalls seeing on the marriage application a question asking if the couple was related. There’s a story there that relations might think they can wed. What about traffic court. These places and the people working them could be a regular feature.

Ken: The Spokesman has a zoned section in north Idaho for the readers, by the readers. Generate content from the community. When there’s a new issue, they go to the people in favor and ask them to tell why in their own words; then the go to the opposition with the same request. Then send e-mails to others in the community asking for comment, generating letters.

Another idea is feature obits.

Kristin: We call ours A Life Remembered and one reporter does three a week, making sure to draw from a wide range of people.

Ken: There’s reporter resistance, claiming at best they might be able to get a few inches out of it. Then they come back with 20-30 inches and it’s a great story and immensely popular with reporters and readers.

Kristin: It gets people into homes and lives

Ken: We also ask if you know of someone who would make a good tribute, let us know. Even had one woman wonder whether she had ever done anything to make others nominate her and that maybe she’d better start doing some good.

Caesar thought we should pay attention to the complexity of those people, not just saying the good stuff, but dealing with the all with tact. He thought it was Mike Smith that said some of these features make people angry that they didn’t know about this person before they died. So how can we find them?

Rosemary has a column called Dart, where a reporter physically throws a dart at the phone book and does a story about someone at the household where it lands. This runs weekly and is wildly popular. This columnist is known all over town.  A guy in Lewiston, Idaho, has been using this concept for 15 years, with great success.

Rick has a reporter named Kathy Free who has a column called Free Lunch. She lunches with a person selected from submitted e-mails and writes about it. Rosemary wondered if that type of column lacked the necessary tension to make it successful, but Rick says it works for his paper.

Steve wondered how to get at the people in the community who are doing the real thinking, not the usual suspects. Rosemary said we should ask our readers who’s pushing the edge.

Dave’s paper looks at prolific letter writers and Ken’s paper has profiled one of its regulars.

Kristin’s paper had a millennium feature about the people who decide things that impact our lives, that we don’t know: The person who decides which cactus can stay or go; person who orders the books for the library; person who places the red lights in intersections; person who brings in the concerts.

Steve: We should ask our readers, “Are we asking the right questions?” Ken has tried something similar to that with no response. The group felt you had to be specific, for instance, ” What questions would you ask about bioterrorism?”

Rosemary has an Ask a Stupid Question feature with questions such as “Why is the bald man’s head sitting in the pew in front of me at church shiny?”

Kristin: There’s is called Valley 101 and is written by a humorous writer. Questions like “Why do they call it a jumping cholla; Is it dangerous for my dog to drink from the swimming pool?”  Humor plays a role. We need to remember to be human.

Steve: What can we do to delight readers? Be more human.

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