There are just some habits I cannot break from my Patch and WestportNow days, including feeling the need to work out of an office and in the community. There’s just something that draws me to coffee shops and other community places to do work. Maybe it’s the noise or maybe it’s the chai or maybe it’s meeting new people. Or maybe it’s running into those familiar faces. But whatever it is, I enjoy it.
When you’re out there and need to be in touch with the community you cover and want to be a part of, you have to pick the right venues to do your work. Notice I said venues because you should never have just one place to visit to do your work. So how do you decide what’s right?
When I worked at Patch, my main hangout was the Starbucks in downtown Millburn. It wasn’t necessarily because I like the chai or knew there was a plug to be had. There were a lot of reasons I liked the Starbucks. A lot of people who worked at Millburn Town Hall visited Starbucks as did many police officers. I regularly ran into parents, principals between meetings downtown and school, business leaders and many others in Starbucks, so it was a bustling place to see (and be seen by) the locals with whom I wanted to connect.
But there was more to it than the people who visited. The downtown Starbucks is at the corner of Millburn Avenue and Main Street, which is the center of town. Even if they weren’t going to Starbucks, many people I wanted to see walked by the shop. Or they drove by. Not to mention firefighters and police officers many times drove through the center of town on a call, and I came to know what type of call they were going to based on what equipment passed and in what direction.
There was one late afternoon the fire trucks came blazing through the middle of town, and I knew without a scanner or a BNN alert there was a fire based on the direction the trucks went (they split at the intersection) and what equipment was going. I packed up, walked out to grab the scanner and go find the fire when the fire chief drove through the center of town. In fact, he waved to me as I waited to cross the street. Seeing the chief headed to the scene confirmed my suspicions.
But, despite what a lot of people thought in Millburn, I would spend time in other spots in town too. The library captured another audience to see, but it also was a sort of hiding in plain sight place. If I needed to do work and not be disturbed with long conversations (which frequently happened in other spots and I enjoyed every moment of them), I headed to the library. People would wave or say hi or ask a quick question, but because it was the library they wanted to be quiet. Plus the quiet rooms were a great spot to conduct interviews, hold meetings with freelancers/staff and get the big work done if needed.
And, of course, there was a need to make sure I was in Short Hills too because not everyone made it downtown every day. Panera was a good spot in the evenings, especially on Board of Education nights. Teachers, principals and other school staff stopped at the Panera before the meeting for dinner. Java’s Brewin’ was a good spot for mornings and lunch to capture the Short Hills crowd too. Plus the muffins there are to die for, as can be attested to by at least one freelancer.
I’d use social media devices like Foursquare and Twitter and Facebook to alert people where I was so they could find me if needed, even to just say hello. But, most often, I didn’t even need to do that. People would just stop by my haunts because they knew I’d be there. I can’t tell you how many times someone popped by Starbucks with a press release or a question just because they figured I’d be there. I even had people leaving things for me with the baristas when I wasn’t there.
The practice of finding the right working venue beckons back to my post about needing to be in the community, not from it. I’m proof someone who doesn’t live in the community (and even many miles away) can cover it properly and know more about it than the people who live there. Obviously the biggest part of being embraced by the community is to cover the stories important to it. But in order to do that, you need to be in the community, spending a lot of time there. And, most importantly, you need for people in the community to see you and be able to talk to you.
A lot of community journalists look at social media as the biggest way to connect with their readers and the community they cover. It is an important tool and should be used for that, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be out in town and for people to see you. When people ask if you’re everywhere because they see you wherever they go, you know you’re doing the right things.
Or maybe you will have people taking photos of you and posting them on Twitter and Facebook like I used to. Then you really know the community has embraced you.
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