How the Winnipeg Free Press Makes Its News Café Work

Courtesy Winnipeg Free Press

During the night of Winnipeg’s October provincial election, reporters and citizens from the Canadian city came together to watch the results come in. Their choice of venue: the Winnipeg Free Press News Café.

Sponsored by the Winnipeg Free Press, the news café opened in March and is an attempt by the Free Press to create a stronger link to the community, said John White, the paper’s deputy online editor. The multimedia editor, video reporter and social media reporter all work out of the café and White is working on having a more formal rotation of reporters come down to the café and schedule appointments with readers. Community events, like book readings and debates between local politicians, are also a big part of the café.

“My main priority in pitching this café concept was to reestablish our physical link to the community,” White said. “When we relocated out of the downtown area to an industrial park we lost that meaningful connection and public meeting space.”

Creating a “news commons,” where members of the community can come and interact with the staff of their local newspaper, is a growing trend. In Connecticut, the Register Citizen operates its own newsroom cafe (White also spoke with its managers to get advice) and the Texas Tribune holds a festival.

“Everything we do now, as we work to transition our audience to whatever digital forms we become in the future, should be about transparency, inclusion, access and interactivity,” White said. “With the news commons, we hope to become the community hub where people come to freely share ideas and learn how to tell their own stories and be heard.

White said the Winnipeg news café was actually conceived after publisher Bob Cox heard about a similar concept in Czechoslovakia. After analyzing business startups and using data from the local chamber of commerce, the paper teamed up with a local restaurateur and within a few months, the news café was ready to open its doors.

The café has been well received and remains pretty busy. For example, during a recent debate between local politicians, the space was so crowded that people stood outside. An online events calendar lets residents and community groups see what’s happening next at the restaurant.

Financially, the café is also doing well. In addition to working with the restaurateur, Dom Amatuzio, the space has some corporate sponsors. Another resource is a new grassroots project helmed by the paper and the Winnipeg Foundation aimed at helping fund community journalism in Winnipeg and based at the café. Over three years, $400,000 will go into the café to help fund this community news common plan, said White.

Want to start your own news café? Here are White’s top three tips:

1. Do your homework to understand your local market conditions;
2. Find a talented restaurateur with a proven track record in restaurant start ups;
3. Find someone with passion to champion the overall project.