Thursday, July 19, 2012

In which I try to "connect" with the "community" by asking people rather awkward questions.

Journalism is a constant treadmill-like quest to better represent and connect with the community. 

Several years ago, we launched MyTown Colorado, a website where community members can submit news, photos and videos. Some people still use it (I guess), but the activity has dropped off. And it is rarely (if ever) interactive with the actual reporters who write the articles in the paper. It's more of an independent portal.


So why didn't this take off? I think because it was one more thing for readers to do. It wasn't easy enough. And there wasn't enough personal attention from the newspaper to let them know that we do care to keep them invested. I mean, would you post status updates on Facebook if no one ever responded? What do you think?

So, that brings us back to square one.

What do people want us to write about? What are we missing? Who is Boulder County? 

In a quest to answer these questions, I began setting up open office hours at area coffee shops and restaurants. I had a few visitors, but I could tell it wasn't filling the void. I needed to go where the people were. And in a health-obsessed community like Boulder, that's the farmers' market. Ohhhh yeah.

I announced with my column that I'd be at the farmers' market this Wednesday, collaborated with our marketing department to perch at the table where they give away free newspapers and I made a sign.

My beautiful sign says, "TALK TO A REPORTER HERE. I am a reporter. Tell me what you want me to write about."
With such a great sign, I was astonished that no one wanted to talk to me. 
Except this lady. 

"Um, excuse me, hold on a minute. Can't you see I'm posing for a photo opp?"

She wanted a free paper.

After 30 minutes of smiling and looking extremely friendly, I ventured away from my podium to start initiating the conversations myself.

This is where I met success. Success, I tell you! So much that, in order to make it home for dinner, I ended up having to burst away from the farmers' market with people in line to talk to me. Burst away, I tell you! (This is only exaggerated by 10 percent, as denoted by the exclamation mark.)

How did she do it? You are eagerly wondering. 

My launching point (beyond my cool sign): A new project that I started called We Are Boulder County. The formula is simple. I walked up to strangers and asked them two simple yet eternal questions: Who are you and why are you here?

Yeah, I'm such a creeper.

The premise: Everyone has a story. What if you had the superhero power to know the story (or at least the back cover summary of it) of everyone you saw? What would you learn about the community you cover? Would it be different than what you thought it was?

We Are Boulder County is organized via Instagram.

And then compiled on a simple blog:

Out of it, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the community, create a fun-to-browse grown-up yearbook-equivalent, and most importantly, make a connection with people I otherwise would not talk to. You know, that whole "investment" part that was missing with the online MyTown portal.

The results?

Most people were eager to participate, and as soon as people realized what I was doing, a line formed. I had to tell them to meet me there next week (one man remarked, "Oh, you're not just one of those helicopter journalists dropping by for one hour and never coming back?" Ooh, burn). To top it off, I left with four solid story ideas. Hence my exclamation marks.

My plans are to keep using We Are Boulder County as a point of engagement during my "mojo office hours" throughout the rest of the summer and see what comes of it.  Who knows?

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