Arizona Republic goes mobile — and you should, too

Cathy Benson at her "bureau" for The Botetourt View -- in a coffeeshop in Daleville, Virginia.

Cathy Benson at her “bureau” for The Botetourt View — in a coffeeshop in Daleville, Virginia.

The Arizona Republic caused a stir this week when it told reporters with three community sections that they were getting laptops — and henceforth needed to work out public wi-fi centers instead of a formal newsroom.

The Phoenix Business Journal reports that the journalists were told to seek out Starbucks and McDonald’s as work locations.

Judging from the journal’s report, and the comments the story generated, the response from journalists has been pretty negative.

I hate to tell my fellow journalists they’re wrong but . . . they’re wrong.

This is a great thing, and they should have been the ones pushing for this all along.

Now, I will confess I don’t know the work climate these days at the Arizona Republic. I know there have been lay-offs, so I suspect the environment probably isn’t the best. How could it be? And perhaps this order from above was not handled well. How many orders from above ever are?

However, setting all that aside (which I realize some in Phoenix may have a hard time doing), the essential move here is a shrewd one.

More journalists OUGHT to be working out of coffee shops, and not barricaded in downtown fortresses, walled off from the communities we’re trying to serve. That’s especially true of community news sections, which these are.

In fact, just two days ago I posted about our experience in Roanoke, Va. with coffeeshop bureaus. In 2008, we at The Roanoke Times shuttered a money-losing community news tab and in its place created three new community tabs (each aimed at a more specific community than the old Roanoke Valley-wide product). A key part of our business model for those three publications — The Botetourt View in Botetourt County, So Salem in Salem and SWoCo in Southwest Roanoke County — was that the journalists would work out in the community, not in downtown Roanoke.

Specifically, they’d be true mobile journalists — armed with a laptop, a cellphone, and access to wi-fi. For the past five years, our community journalists with those publications have worked out of coffee shops (and sometimes other locations, such as libraries.) We even advertise regular office hours for them. Cathy Benson, our community journalist in Botetourt, often has people lined up to see her when she sets up shop on Wednesday mornings at the Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea in Daleville.

She and her colleagues might only venture into the downtown office once a week, and then just for a short period of time to do things you can’t do remotely — meet face-to-face with an editor, for instance, or fill out the obligatory paperwork.

Our coffee shop bureaus have been a key part of our success in each locality. They put us closer to the community. I can’t tell you how many times our journalists have come across stories simply because they’re out there and visible. I guarantee those story tips wouldn’t have happened if they were sitting in downtown, behind a security guard and three stories of a corporate facade.

Yes, this saves the Arizona Republic some money, to be sure — but journalists who want to keep their jobs ought to be celebrating that fact, not complaining. Furthermore, reporters — especially community news reporters — are supposed to be out amongst the public. If they want to sit in an office most of the time, well, they’re in the wrong profession.

I almost wrote, with tongue only partly in cheek, that if they wanted to be in an office, they should become editors. Except . . . I’m an editor and I had my own experience with working out in public. About two years ago, my wife had surgery and I had to spend part of the day at home with her while she recuperated. Rather than burn up time driving to downtown, I decided to work a half-day each day out of the public library near my home. I found it an invigorating experience. True, there were certain key computer functions I couldn’t do remotely than I really needed to be in the office for. Still, just being out in public like that for several hours a day gave me a fresher perspective on the community I’m paid to serve.

I don’t know why more papers don’t embrace this coffeeshop bureau model. Yes, I completely understand you don’t want to be making sensitive investigative journalism phone calls from a public space. But for community journalism — and some shades of even “regular” journalism — this is how the world ought to be working. And I’m happy to see that the Arizona Republic has now followed The Roanoke Times on this cutting edge, even if it came to this decision for the wrong reasons.

If anybody doubts this concept, then stop by to see us sometime. We’ll even buy you a cup of coffee (although I’m a strict tea-drinker, myself.)