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(photo by Rob Knight)

As part of the Next Newsroom Project, I’ve been exploring several core questions about the structure of news organizations, both physical and operational. One of those central questions is this: What is the ideal relationship between a newsroom and its community?

One of the exciting things about the era we’re entering is that there are much wider range of options to consider when addressing this question. We’re moving away from the traditional broadcast model where information flowed in one direction from the newsroom to the community. It’s clear that the community should be placed at the center of a news operation, rather than at the edges. The important question now: How?

This past weekend, as part of my day job at the San Jose Mercury News, we took a stab at that question by holding our first CopyCamp. What is CopyCamp? You can get the full background here from the idea’s author, David Cohn, who now has his hands full with his Knight project, Spot.Us.

But here’s the concept in a nutshell: Invite members of the community into the newsroom for an unconference to have a conversation about our news coverage. In our case, we decided to focus this particular CopyCamp on issues related to our coverage of race and demographics, one of the core stories at the Mercury News (the other being technology, of course).

Dave brought this concept to us last fall and it immediately struck us as a good idea. After postponing once, we set this past weekend as the date. Dave created a wiki for folks to register. I recruited a bunch of folks from the newsroom to participate. And together, we spent several weeks inviting sources and members of the community.

When the day finally rolled around, the timing probably couldn’t have been worse. Management surprised us a few days before by announcing another round of layoffs. For those keeping score, it’s the seventh round of layoffs or buyouts at the Merc since 2001. Newsroom tally is now down from 420 at the peak to 155.

Despite the gloom, the newsroom folks (reporters, editors, designers, columnists) were still eager for the event to go forward. I think it’s important to note that while I hear a lot of criticism outside our walls about journalists being stodgy and unwilling to embrace change, that’s not my experience at the Merc. What I see is a lot of folks looking for answers, and willing to try just about anything.

In that spirit, we had 10 folks from the newsroom attend last Saturday (unpaid) for the five-hour session. We had 28 folks from the community come, representing a diverse range of communities and ethnic backgrounds.

We kicked off the day with Dave and I explaining the format: People there would be proposing topics for discussion. Several folks did, and we broke into three groups for hour-long discussions. We ate lunch, and then reconvened in a circle to get reports from each group. And then I tried to lead a discussion on next steps we could take together, both the community and the newsroom.

Dave has a great post here about What worked and What Could Be Improved. And I agree with his overall analysis.

The good: Community members were clearly happy to be asked to be there. They were enthusiastic and passionate. Despite everything that’s happened in recent years, it seems clear we still matter in their lives. Reporters listened and engaged in a mostly constructive back and forth.

What could be better: Me. Or rather, the moderator. There were times when the conversations got stuck, or repetitive. There’s the tempation for folks outside the Merc to talk about all the things we don’t do, or that they wished we would do. And it’s easy for newsroom folks to want to explain why we don’t do those things, or how hard it is.

Both are true. Most reporters wouldn’t dispute that. The thing is, even when we had 420 people in the newsroom, we felt there were a lot of things we were missing. It’s more the case now. The problem is endemic, no matter the size of the newsroom.

Still, Dave was right: It would have really helped to have a professional moderator to help move those conversations toward the underlying question: How do we change this dynamic?

I don’t think we solved that. But our afternoon session generated some substantive ideas, including creating a network of community representatives to contribute information and hold continued copycamp-style meetings out in the community with readers. Most important: community members were eager to remain engaged in the conversation as long as the Merc was willing to take their ideas seriously.

What’s next: I’ll meet next week with newsroom folks to go over the idea list, and then take them to management to figure out what the paper will commit to doing. Having the community behind us will help make the case (I hope).

My takeaway: CopyCamp is a great concept. Too often, when newsrooms think about how to redefine their relationship with their community, they default to some online product or digital gimmick. There’s certainly a wealth of opportunities to do that. But in the end, nothing beats sitting in a room with those people, building bonds, and having an open-ended conversation about how to re-imagine the relationship between the newsroom and the community.

Worst case, you build some morale and solid sources. Best case: By working together, you ignite a spark of innovation that puts the newsroom on a new path.

For other takes on CopyCamp:

Follow the Twitter conversation here.

Rob Knight, who attended, writes: CopyCamp was Awesome.

And Chris Amico shared his thoughts and a video here.

Finally, if you’re interested in joining an ongoing discussion about race and demographics with folks at the Mercury News, check out the Ning site we set up for the event: Majority of None.