Category Archives: Beatblogging

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.

Beatblogging.org recaps the Hershey Home

Pat Thornton’s interview with me, and his resulting recap, is up at Beatblogging.org. His conclusion: Sometimes a Ning network just doesn’t work.

I believe the experience of the Hershey Home is a valuable laboratory for other journalists, especially those outside of the big cities. This is why I love the beatblogging.org project — it’s real reporters trying out new methods, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. Both will benefit journalists who care to listen.

And here’s streaming audio of the interview, or you can download the mp3.

Five months later, reflections on Ning

At the end of the final June meeting of the Derry Twp. school board, I told a parent that I’d see her at the next meeting.

But until then, I enthusiastically said to the Hershey Home member, she should participate a lot on the Ning network!

“Ehh…” she said, shrugging her shoulders.

I half-smiled in acknowledgment, because it was hard for me to argue she should have a different reaction. Truth is, the online network I set up for parents and residents as part of the beatblogging.org project in February just hasn’t caught on with them.

Some raw numbers:

  • Of the 36 members, only 15 have written something in the discussion forum.
  • Of the 15 members who have posted, two of them wrote 35 messages apiece. The other 13 combined for 36 messages.
  • Of those 15, eight of them responded to just one or two topics.
  • Only five members started their own discussion topic.
  • About half have taken the time to fill out minimal profiles.
  • Just six have uploaded photos of themselves for an avatar.

There are six of what I’d call the “highly committed” members. These are people who have really bought into the idea in one form or another, either uploading their own photography, inviting friends to participate, contacting each other through the site, contributing to the discussion, etc.

But even among those six, only one or two of them are really into social media. One has her own blog and Twitter account (and I recently recruited another Twitter user who hasn’t yet participated in the site).

I had very high hopes coming into the beatblogging project, and in some ways I still do. This kind of network has exciting potential as a small-town community organizer, and I don’t intend to give up on the idea.

But the failure to launch of the Hershey Home has necessitated a new strategy that involves shifting my time and effort toward a new blog — and details will be provided in an upcoming post. But for now, a brief retrospective from my beatblogging experience so far.

WHAT WORKED WELL:

  • Though the network didn’t bear much fruit in terms of immediate translation to the print product, it did help create offline relationships that were very important. Contacting these people, either by phone or by e-mail or by messaging new members, meant I was able to make personal contact with 36 potential sources I might not have otherwise. A lot of public and private messages on the forum led to productive phone calls.
  • As I detailed in an earlier post, the site’s mere presence was an advertisement for my willingness and desire to hear from residents. I called it an “Open for Business” sign.
  • Due to my insistence that members use their full, real names, the quality of conversation was usually higher than some of the noxious forums that are used otherwise. The members often expressed appreciation for that.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK WELL:

  • It hasn’t been the “Set it and forget it” reporting solution I hoped it might be. One time a big story broke, and I only had about two hours to gather community reaction. I took 20 very precious minutes to pull into the Panera Bread parking lot to use the wifi and solicit reaction on the site. I e-mailed all the members to let them know of my desire to hear from them. When I came back two hours later to see the mountain of riches that had come in, there wasn’t a single message in response. I ended up just calling one of the members.
  • In a community with very little activity on social networking sites, it was difficult to find a full buy-in to the concept.
  • The site did nothing to overcome what residents have repeatedly called a “culture of fear” when it comes to criticizing local officials. So in some of the most contentious and important issues, the ability to be anonymous elsewhere redirected traffic to those other forums.

Since this is getting a little long, I’ll split this up. Coming soon: Where the beatblogging project goes from here, and lessons to be learned for small-town journalism and networking.

Beatblogging success story: The “Open for Business” sign

I love the beatblogging project because it’s innovation in real newsroom laboratories, as opposed to tsk-tsking and dreaming.

My foray into it has had its ups and downs, but I recently had a kind of success story that I didn’t expect when I signed up.

And it shows why I believe so much that social networking can revolutionize small-town beat reporting.

A woman in the town I cover believed that she had spotted an injustice. (I won’t go into detail for competitive reasons, and because my work on the possible story is ongoing.)

But she didn’t know what to do with this knowledge, so like any other computer user, she turned to Google. She typed in the name of a resident in town who her neighbors had recommended, a person who might know what to do with this information.

One of the first results took her to The Hershey Home, the Ning network I set up for the beatblogging project. The resident she sought has been a frequent contributor to the network.

Once there, she strolled around the site. She read all of my solicitations for story ideas, background information on stories I was already working on, and feedback for stories I’ve already written. She went ahead and e-mailed me to set up a meeting.

After she spilled the beans at our meeting, I asked her why she contacted me.

“I just read through your comments on the site, and you seemed like the type of person who would want to hear this,” she responded.

Imagine that! I may have stumbled upon a high-impact story based on a tip from a person who isn’t even a member of the network. She chose to contact a reporter because the network put up an “Open for Business” sign,  and revealed that I have a genuine interest in hearing from as many residents as possible.

An obligatory listing of our e-mail address at the end of our stories doesn’t invite our readers to contact us, it just allows them to. Setting up this kind of network, interacting with people online, and really advertising that we really, really do want to hear from people can directly lead to stories.

Why I’m beatblogging: It helps the print product, too

As one of the 13 reporters in Jay Rosen and David Cohn‘s beatblogging.org project, I’ve read a lot of response to the concept.

The Journalism Iconoclast is behind the concept, calling you an idiot if you’re a sports reporter who isn’t on the train.

In a comment on one of Cohn’s posts on Wired Journalists, Maurreen Skowran wrote: “The beats that aren’t local or regional have potential, but they are the minority.”

I strongly disagree. I set up a social network — the Hershey Home — based on a small, local beat. And frankly, I don’t see why any small-town reporter who possesses the necessary computer skills wouldn’t do that same, no matter how many stories you have to write per week.

Here’s the point most often missed: Successful beatblogging saves, not costs, reporters their time. In a fraction of the time and effort, it accomplishes all these goals that any reporter would share:

  • It can drastically increase your quantity of sources
  • It can drastically increase the diversity of your sources
  • It can positively develop your relationship with sources
  • It allows you to stay in constant contact with those sources without picking up the phone and calling them individually
  • It encourages those sources to share story ideas or current happenings
  • It can lead you into background or context to your stories you wouldn’t otherwise know about

Along with these additional benefits that the new-media types love:

  • It encourages a sense of community
  • It gets information to people in the form that they choose
  • It allows for a depth that the print product can’t achieve
  • It makes the news a conversation instead of a declaration

Now if that all were to come at the expense of the print product, we could have a cost/benefit discussion. But it simply doesn’t. A reporter can spend 15-20 minutes per day leading the discussion, then sit back and let the community do everything else for you. They’re happy to be participating, you’re happy to hear from them.

I had 30 residents sign up for my network within two weeks. It’s had its difficulties, which David Cohn is dutifully reporting on beatblogging.org, but it’s also early.

There are many different methods to beatblogging, and I’ll have plenty more to say about it. But I strongly believe this project will make my print product better — to me, the new media benefits are actually secondary.