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Pioneer Press newsroom gets ‘mobile engagement unit’

Come June, reporter John Brewer will tool around the Twin Cities looking for news — but in a different way, his editors insist.

Come June, the Pioneer Press will get a mobile newsroom similar to this VW van.

Don’t call it a news van.

Come June, Pioneer Press reporter John Brewer will be rolling around the Twin Cities in a tricked-out Ford Transit Connect. Though it sounds like something Ron Burgundy would crave, Pioneer Press editor Mike Burbach says if the van was merely a rolling billboard with an uplink, “we don’t need it. It’s a mobile engagement unit.”

Here’s how Burbach described the workings in his proposal to DigitalFirst Media, the PiPress’s Pennsylvania-based overlords:

“We will take our Mobile Community Lab to the crowds, and gather and publish content – news, blogs, opinion, slide shows, video – at every stop. It will be equipped with Wi-Fi, laptops, video and audio equipment, coffee and donuts. It will pull up, open up and welcome people in, in all manner of situations.”

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While journalists would use the van as a base for coverage, they can also help the citizenry create their own stories and even learn how to blog and post.

“We don’t usually send reporters out with a cooler,” Burbach quips. “It gives us a little more of a presence, and the accouterments give you more reason to engage, and listen.”

Though the gizmo can be seen as a gimmick, Steve Buttry, DigitalFirst director of community engagement and social media, says there is real return on investment. A DigitalFirst paper in Torrington, Ct. has had a “newsroom cafe” hoping to engage residents not just as sources but as content creators. Their work doesn’t necessarily appear on the paper’s website; but Torrington’s blogging workshops have birthed sites that that DigitalFirst properties link out to.

“We see a return on investment in deepening connections with the community and extending your brand,” Buttry says. “Torrington was a money-losing operation and had been for some years; I can’t say the newsroom cafe turned it around, but it was the most significant thing we did differently, and it is now a profitable operation.”

The van’s graphics wrap will convey the message the east-metro PiPress has the metro-wide “ is URL and brand with a metro-wide following, so we need to be mobile and get into the Twin Cities region,” says Buttry, whose son lives in Edina. “People in Edina are not going to come into the newsroom in St. Paul.”

While some of us want every spare penny to be spent on more bodies, Burbach notes the cost is under $50,000 and Buttry says the actual figure wouldn’t pay for a reporter plus benefits for a year.

Brewer — who won a chain-wide IdeaLab contest to spend company time on digital innovation — is the perfect, personable ambassador for the project. He’s an excellent feature writer happy chronicling western Wisconsin barbecue contests and shooting videos at quintessential St. Paul cafes.

Is this an experiment that can be abandoned if the benefits aren’t profound or don’t scale? Burbach eschews that safety valve. “It’s going to work. It absolutely is. Yes, the van has four wheels and all the plug-ins, but in the end, it depends on us being journalists. What matters is engaging, listening and figuring out ways to amplify what’s going on in the community.”