Monthly Archives: August 2008

Beatblogging: A future model for the shrinking newsroom

Ten years down the road, beatblogging is going to be much more important to the news organization than it is now as we’re in the primitive stages of trying to figure it out.

I see it as the future band-aid, if not the solution, to the epidemic of emaciating staff resources.

Let’s first acknowledge that beat reporting is going to undergo some serious evolution as staffs continue to shrink. It won’t much resemble our beats of today, and beatblogging is just one part of that.

We have to figure out how we’re going to cram two, three, four times as many subject areas into the workload of the reporters who remain. Somehow, we have to figure out how to do that without severely under-reporting the communities that depend on that work.

Our current model — attending meetings, working the phones, hoping sources will voluntarily e-mail us with tips — will crumble on top of us. The remaining reporters would be overwhelmed, meetings would conflict, there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day to call all the sources necessary to keep in touch.

That’s already happening if you ask the right reporters, and it’s only going to get worse.

So I’m sending beatblogging in on its off-white horse. I say off-white because it’s not the only evolution necessary, but certainly an important one.

In my personal efforts — which are really stuck in neutral right now as I shift from a mostly discarded Ning network to a not-ready-for-primetime blog — the lack of user activity was the kiss of death. The return on investment wasn’t quite there for me, not just yet.

Ten years from now, that won’t be nearly as much of a problem. There must be Friendster before there’s Facebook. Ten years from now, it’ll be a much easier sell to get a variety of community members contributing to the news process via their computers, or whatever they’re using at that point.

My Ning network never became the set-it-and-forget-it Story Idea Delivery System some might dream it to be — beatblogging and other equally important forms of online interaction will probably never get to that point. They still require the input of the reporter’s time to make it valuable to the readers, and in return valuable to the reporter.

But cultivating that kind of network can drastically increase our return on (time) investment, which is exactly what we need to cram more responsibilities into our schedules. It has the potential to increase our sourcing tenfold, while not increasing our time commitment nearly as much.

And since we know fewer reporters will be left 10 years from now, guess which ones are more likely to survive the slaughter so they can create these beatblogs?

Yep, the ones who have already demonstrated these skills. Better learn ’em now.

Knight News Challenge: Feedback needed

I’ve been struck by an idea, and I hate keeping ideas to myself. Especially with fun communication toys like blogs and Twitter so easily available.

But I’m very enthusiastic about this idea, and I think it might be best presented through the Knight News Challenge, which offers moola to ideas that will push journalism forward. I believe this one will — and I believe it might need the funding the challenge’s grants would provide.

I know my idea will be better once it’s tossed around in more brains than my own. But since we’re talking about a competition, I truly don’t know if it’s better to throw it into the Knight News Challenge garage or just pass it through some people I trust.

That’s where I’m hoping you come in.

I’d like to set up a small circle of friends, colleagues, bloggers and Twitter users to whom I could, in confidence, present my idea. I’m looking for journalists specifically, and would be extra grateful for college students or recent graduates in particular. I don’t need to know you all that well.

All I ask is that you’re willing to get an e-mail or two from me. Send feedback if you have it, or you can ignore it if you don’t.

Mostly, I just want to have a few people to tell me whether or not I’m nuts. Doesn’t that sound fun?

E-mail me or leave me your address if you’d be willing to help. Thanks.

Non-story? Then don’t write it

According to a news release from the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, local residents would “welcome John McCain to Harrisburg by unveiling a new video called ‘Jobs’ at a press event.” As the reporter who covers local Obama events and issues, I was dispatched.

I quickly realized it wasn’t much of a story. The room consisted of two city council members, a school board member, an Obama delegate, and three or four other people used as sign-holding props. The press who took the bait on this thing were myself and a local TV cameraman.

The event itself was quick and unremarkable. Turns out Obama people don’t like McCain’s record on jobs. At the end, a Democratic staffer played the DNC-produced, Web-only video on a laptop.

So at this point we have a few local politicians talking about their opinions of John McCain, and standing around watching a video on a laptop.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve already come to this conclusion: There’s no story here.

Then I got back to the office, did a little research, and realized there was no freaking way this was a story.

You see, one of the few moderately interesting quotes that I scribbled down came from the school board member who said:

“John McCain’s claims that he’ll put jobs first are laughable with his history of putting his lobbyist friends first.”

You know who else thinks that? DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney:

“John McCain’s claim that he’ll put ‘jobs first’ is laughable in light of his history of putting his lobbyist friends ahead of America’s workers at every turn,” said DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney.

Much of the content of the event also matched the DNC news release, right down to mentioning the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Oh, plus there’s the little matter of this news release being sent out nationally Sunday morning, over seven hours before this press event in Harrisburg.

Oh, plus there’s the little matter of that YouTube video being posted a full day before this “unveiling.”

So now we not only have an uninteresting story, we have the Obama folks claiming to unveil a video that’s already been online, and local officials acting as intermediaries to get the DNC’s words through local mouths to hopefully get the local media to repeat them to a wider audience.

What followed was a newsroom tango. I argued that there was no story, editor argues it’s worth a short story. I write a short story focusing on the similarities with the DNC news release, and the fact the event was pitched to media as an unveiling but really wasn’t at all. Editor quickly wonders if it shouldn’t be recast as a straight “Dems respond to Mccain” story. I argue phony news events don’t deserve real news coverage. Editor finally sees it my way, the story is spiked, and you won’t read about it in my newspaper.

Thank goodness for that. We in the media can do our part to actually aid the discussion by checking these events out, then promptly ignoring them when they turn out to be duds.

Just because local politicians are speaking, and just because a reporter spent an hour listening to them speak, doesn’t mean we need to report on it. That the standard “Dems respond to McCain” story was considered, and that a TV station apparently aired the comments, is a signal that we need to be more vigilant in setting the standards of this campaign.

The campaigns can put on these events because local media keep drinking it up. When we decide we’re not going to be used, when we make clear our own standards are rising, they’ll have to move on to a better strategy.