What can museums learn from the Register Citizen Open Newsroom Project?

A couple of articles popped into my feed today about US Digital First Media‘s announcement that they were creating a national curation team to

track, collect and distribute curated news in order for newsrooms to focus on local reporting. “Providing context to everything we curate is vital to providing a comprehensive news report,” said digital projects editor Mandy Jenkins. “It’s our responsibility to bring these stories to each of our local markets.”

Steve Buttry, Director of Community Engagement & Social Media at Digital First, has written a long and interesting post on news curation techniques, types and tips that’s worth reading for insight on the approaches of news organisation to curation. But after reading these two posts, I wanted to investigate a little further. I stumbled upon the Register Citizen Open Newsroom Project and its Newsroom Cafe. Now this makes for fascinating reading. The Newsroom Cafe is based in Torrington, Connecticut and it offers more than just food and drink… There are no walls between the cafe area and the newsroom, and “readers are invited to find the reporter that writes about their community or area of interest – or editors – and talk about concerns, ideas, questions.”

There are a number of strategies that the project employs, like allowing public debate of internal policies, fact checking programs, partnerships with other media and non-media organisations, and digital first reporting, that give useful pause for thought for museum organisations tackling the problems of the integration of digital and non-digital. In addition, the Newsroom Cafe offers a community media lab with a full-time community engagement editor. They also make a space for an artist-of-the-month program(!), featuring the work of local artists in the cafe space itself, while the most popular feature of the Cafe has been public access to the newspaper’s archives from their 134 year history – both of which are things that should catch the attention of museum people.

In addition, the Register Citizen holds their daily story meetings at a table on the edge of the cafe, and the community is allowed to sit in, listen or even participate. This is where it gets really interesting.

Video of the meetings is also live-streamed on RegisterCitizen.Com, and we use a live chat to allow readers to watch from home and type in a question or comment in real time. Those words are displayed on a large monitor above the conference table, so editors and readers can interact and respond to people tuning in from afar.

…A funny thing happened after we moved into the “open newsroom” last December. We stopped having “editorial board meetings,” at least in the traditional sense where an outside organization or politician meets behind closed doors with a committee of editors, reporters and the publisher. We were still getting requests, but when we did, we made sure the industry association or special interest in question knew how we do things now. We’ll meet with you, but it will be in public, our readers will be invited to attend and participate, and we’ll be live-streaming it on the web. For the most part, after that became clear, the party requesting the editorial board meeting said “No thanks.” Others, including Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, embraced it, and the public’s involvement, by all accounts, improved and advanced the discussion. An exciting opportunity has emerged for us to create a new kind of editorial board process.

These movements interest me for a number of reasons. For one thing, as a participatory location, The Newsroom Cafe starts to draw together the news room with its community in a far more immediate way. Rather than simply seeking community involvement online, the local community is drawn into the process even in the physical space but integrates that with digital processes.

The transparency and openness of the process has also changed the dynamics of editorial, in a way that seems to have upended previous practice. What would it be like to hold a curatorial or exhibition meeting in the museum cafe, when anyone could join in? Or, what would happen if museums opened up about the evolution of knowledge that occurs around their collections, and allowed the public into that process? Such a question recalls to me a paper by Bruno Latour on the revision of knowledge. He asks

does it distract visitors to know that there were paleontologists fighting one another, that fossils had a market value, that reconstitutions have been modified so often, that we “don’t know for sure”, or, as another label [in the NY Museum of Natural History exhibit A Textbook Case Revisited] states, “While it’s intriguing to speculate about the physiology of long extinct animals we cannot test these ideas conclusively”? The more fossils there are, we feel the more interesting, lively, sturdy, realistic, and provable are our representations of them; how come we would feel less certain, less sturdy, less realistic about the same representations when they multiply? When their equipment is visible? When the assembly of paleontologists is made visible?

It’s here, in the idea of opening up about the changes in museum knowledge, that I think museum transparency could really come into its own. But examples like the Newsroom Cafe further demonstrates the eroding demarcation of roles that were once more easily differentiated. The news becomes situated in space and time, becomes woven into the community. The digital and “real” have joined more seamlessly there, and such moves make it less easy to know what is to be the role of the museum, and what is the role of, well, some other organisation in the connected age. Boundaries are eroding, and while the material culture role of museums seems unthreatened, the experiential, educational and knowledge roles might be up for grabs. Even shopping centres are getting in on the act, taking on the Internet by stressing experience. Such movements could still have implications for museums, which is why I think we need to be looking to these kinds of projects to learn if and how they work.

What do you think about the Register Citizen Open Project? How would you feel if the public was allowed to sit in on exhibition or curatorial meetings? Do you think that museums should make visible the revisions in their knowledge? Let me know.

4 thoughts on “What can museums learn from the Register Citizen Open Newsroom Project?

  1. Nice thought Side but even ignoring personal misgivings about the quality of information generated in some meetings I think contrary to expectations exhibition development is mainly conducted outside the curatorial department and most of the issues discussed relate to economics, loans, board and museum direction, conservation, object movement fabrication, etc & may not make for such great public fare.

    However I totally agree with you
    about opening up the early stages of the development process to more people especially internally – I was just suggesting yesterday to a fellow curator that we should have 5 min pitches open to all staff where we would spend an afternoon heckling applauding and questioning new suggestions for programs.

    Perhaps something like this could work with a public interface as well?

    1. Interesting, Geoff. One reason that I am exploring this topic is because I’m not entirely convinced that museums do need to open up the development process to other people, even though I think the Newsroom Cafe approach is fascinating and wonder what its impact would be on a museum. So I want to delve deeper into these implications.

      Max Anderson, in his great piece arguing for museum transparency, argues that “Museum programming begins not with asking what a mass audience wants, but with what we might all benefit from experiencing, even if we have to struggle and sometimes fail to draw a huge audience.”

      I’m inclined to agree. I guess one of the things that would be important with an open approach would be mechanisms for balancing out ideas that came from elsewhere (through something like your pitches session) with the need to provide beneficial programming. And then being transparent and accountable about why particular choices were made.

      (*nb – I edited this comment after thinking through some of my ideas further.)

  2. There is a difference between transparency and participation. The above news organizations have opened up their process selectively to both transparency and participation, but not always in combination with each other and not always in equal measure. I strongly believe that we should strive for nearly total transparency at our museums, but I’m not entirely sold on total participation. A transparent record of decisions made (and the corresponding motivations behind them) is important because it helps the audience understand why we choose to display what we do and why we think it’s important to them.

    But involving the audience in every step of the process would result in either cacophony or the effective loss of editorial control. I’m less worried about the possibility of chaos than I am about the possible “filter bubble” effect such a system could cause. I know that the local audience in my area likes certain things and doesn’t like others. I know that some of the things they don’t like would be really great exhibitions that would reach a lot of people and help us serve our mission, even if they wouldn’t be the most successful from a ticketing standpoint. I’d hate to have all of our programming decisions influenced by the audience. The museum would become much more homogenous and boring if we did.

    It’s important to note that many decisions at the above-mentioned news organizations still happen behind closed doors with no record at all and no audience participation. They have selected certain processes to expose and open to participation, but they have chosen just as carefully what to keep to themselves. What we have to decide is which parts of our process we’re willing to be transparent about (which I think should be most everything), which processes we’re willing to make participatory (which we need to be much more thoughtful about) and which things we’re still going to keep to ourselves. We shouldn’t expect that our decisions in this regard will mirror those of the news organizations because we serve a different mission than they do.

    I’m not sure holding our exhibitions planning meetings in the cafe is the right answer, but perhaps we can open up more around events, classes, tours and other activities that make the museum what it is. I think the audience is less interested in planning what’s being shown and more interested in planning how they want to experience it.

    1. Matt, I agree with you. I find myself torn about participation in museums, and where in the process it should sit. I read posts like Paula Bray’s recent one on bringing communities into the decision making process or Sharon Heal’s recent Museums Association UK post on Whither the Curator?, in which Heal writes:

      An on the whole progressive section of the museum profession who are generally switched on to the participation and access agenda are still wary of giving up control of their galleries.

      …The reality is that curators make choices not just about what gets displayed but also about who else gets to choose. And restricting the debate to “visitors” rather than the public as a whole further constrains who can have a say in the galleries… [and] maybe that is what some curators fear – that if you let the public have a go they might do a better job of it?

      Such writing gives me a moment’s pause that maybe I should be expecting or even wanting participation around curatorial or exhibition choices. But I’m not convinced. I think we have experts for a reason, and that we shouldn’t necessarily pander to the crowd or popular choice. And with that in mind, I don’t know where or when participation should come into the museum. I feel like I should, but I just don’t.

      As an aside, another big difference between the museum and the newspaper (or news organisation) is the cost of incorporating a public idea. If a member of the public comes up with an idea for a story, or has something that he or she things needs covering, it can require as little as a small amount of time and some column inches. But in a museum, space is money.

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