Tag Archives: Beatblogging

In online reporting experiment, a good start is essential

The gears are turning, and pretty soon I’ll be embarking on what Ryan Sholin called a “community-directed reporting” experiment. From here on out I’m stealing Ryan’s name for it, because it’s a good one.

The short version: I’ll soon be starting in a new role at The Patriot-News as a hyrbid mobile journalist/general assignment reporter — with a twist. I’ll manage a blog that will solicit story ideas from readers, which they will leave in the comments section. I’ll take some of their best ideas, throw them in poll form, and allow the readers to vote on which story I should tackle next. And that’s the one I’ll write, for both the blog and the print product.

Catch up on more of the thinking behind it, and more details on how the concept will work, in this post from last month. Since then, the project has moved from “That’d be a great idea” to “Got the green light” to “Holy crap, I have to come up with a real plan for this thing.”

An important lesson I learned from my Beatblogging.org experience, during which I set up a Ning-powered social network for the Hershey community I covered: It’s wildly important to get the project off on the right foot, establish the right culture early, and pray that it takes root.

What do I mean by “the right culture?” As I wrote in a Facebook note to 30 of my friends in the area, I’m seeking contributors who:

“are leaving intelligent, productive comments in the early going. I want to establish the culture where the smartasses are ostracized and overwhelmed by the valuable people, not the other way around. If that can be established in the beginning, it will become entrenched and expected behavior among everyone else. If that doesn’t happen, there’s no way my idea can work out.”

“Smartasses” is a term that got me in trouble — rightfully so — when someone found my Twitter account and posted one of my poorly worded Tweets in the comments of an introductory post on PennLive:

@ashleygurbal I ain’t skurred. I have a plan to establish the right culture…building an army now to overwhelm and nullify smartasses.

I shouldn’t have called some (obviously not all) readers that, but the point remains that it’s the users perceived as smartasses that have chased away valuable content by creating a hostile, intimidating environment. They exist on every news site and have a toxic effect.

I considered that introductory post, in which I asked for help picking out a name for the blog, as a bit of a trial run. The response from readers was, quite expectedly, mixed.

to comply with truth in advertising, you need to name the blog, “A general assignment reporter’s worst nightmare.”


How bout naming it “Farmed Out” because you’re too cheap to go get stories, so you want them to come to you.

How long until this thing gets pranked?

I’ll give it 2 weeks until we see a story about a cat nursing a puppy.


Have any of you heard of the saying, “unless you have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”??? My gosh, why the negativity? I think this sounds like a fun idea.


Instead of worrying about what to call your blog, why don’t you invest that time to spellcheck all of the articles.


You guys are a joke. Can’t wait to see great articles about spelling bees and summer camp.


Forgive my negativity, but this is not what I’d like to see good reporters like Dan wasted on.

Respectfully, newspapers are shrinking all over and I agree with the commenter above – considering the shrinking nature of journalism please use your resources for more important things.


I think this is a great idea! And it might give voice to some cool stories from readers that might not warrant a whole article but would still neat to hear about.


That’s great; play the fiddle while Rome burns.

Our local, state and federal governments are getting more corrupt by the day and you don’t want to allow political discussion on a forum designed around the readers’ interests. Just sunshine and lollypops.


Wow this sounds like a terrible idea. Has anyone ever read the comments on any of these articles. These people are going to start to determine what is newsworthy? Are you kidding me???? Look at the 81 comments on the racist flyer article and you tell me if this is still a good idea.


The ridiculous ideas can be weeded out easily enough. I can honestly see this improving the stories that pour out of the patriot news building.


Awesome! Too many times I’ve witnessed good community events go by the wayside and not even be acknowledged in our local newspaper.

This is coupled with an overwhelmingly positive response on Facebook, Twitter, other j-bloggers and real life people I’ve told about it. I think the success in those areas has a lot to do with me previously establishing credibility, but it still confirms to me that the audience is out there. It’s just going to take a lot of work, and maybe a lot of luck, to get this thing started right.

To that end, I’m relying heavily on social media to spread the word. I’m hoping the people who already approve of the idea can help carry some weight early on, or pass the word on to others who they think would be interested.

There remain a lot of questions about how I’ll actually implement the plan, and how I’m going to avoid some of the trouble spots that are probably on your mind. I plan to address those in FAQ format in an early post on the blog, so please let me know what you think readers (or you) will be concerned about, and I’ll try to address them now.

How do journalists grow social networking in a small(er) town?

twitter.jpgA lot of the most spirited arguments for social media are often made in places where there’s already a tech-savvy audience built in.

Yet in a place like Harrisburg, Pa., which is home to the country’s 86th-biggest newspaper and the No. 41 television market, there are a total of nine people on Twitter who have updated their status in the past six days. A local TV station has taken the initiative to faithfully feed its headlines to Twitter, and for its efforts has been rewarded with just 20 followers.

And if you search for my coverage area — the town of Hershey, Pa. — there isn’t a single tweet from the town in the past six days.

The blogging landscape, despite a dedicated few who are doing their best to prop it up, is similarly small.

As a “traditional journalist” who embraces new media as a keystone of journalism’s future, I’ve wrestled with the question: Is it partly my own responsibility to promote new media in the area? And how would I go about doing that?

To an extent I’m doing it, but maybe not enough. I encourage better blogging practices and better blogger relations in my newsroom, of course. As part of the beatblogging.org project, I started The Hershey Home to get people who aren’t on Facebook or MySpace to participate in the online discussion.

But individual reporters can only chip away at the problem — it would take an organization-wide commitment to really make a difference. It would require serious — not token — linking to local blogs. A significant effort to use Twitter as a distribution tool. A real two-way presence on Facebook, instead of using it just to solicit sources on regional home pages.

If newspaper organizations could somehow boost the use of social media in their own areas, it would no doubt have long-term benefits for both the communities and the newspaper organizations themselves. Outside the big cities, there are a lot of newspapers that ought to be thinking about how to do that.

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.

I’m not dead yet. I don’t want to go on the cart.

grimreaper.gifIn a significant portion of the journalism blogging community, I’ve witnessed the following themes emerge:

  • We’re all going to die. We’re all going to freaking die.
  • There are two types of reporters: Those who “get it,” and those who “just don’t get it.” If you don’t know what you’re getting, then you clearly don’t get it.
  • Those who “just don’t get it” need to hurry up and “get it,” or we’re all going to die.

And then there are all of those journalists who aren’t blogging, but are complaining just as loudly about how the Internet is messing everything up.

It’s more of a spectrum than a dichotomy, of course, but no matter where you fall there’s a lot of negativity. We’re awfully short on working together, though, and it’s getting pretty nasty out there.

So I’m hoping to join the many blogs I’ve read that are somewhere between the bunkers.

I’m totally down with new media skills — I use Facebook and MySpace as reporting tools on a consistent basis (example here), and I’ll write plenty about my Hershey Home site that I set up as part of Jay Rosen and David Cohn‘s beatblogging.org project. I fully understand how a loaded RSS reader is essential in keeping me on top of my community and the larger culture. I’m trying to improve my audio and video skills.

But I don’t look down upon reporters who didn’t understand a word in that last paragraph, yet could report and write me under the table. There’s a place for them, too.

I would never claim to have any grand visions about how we can cure newspapers’ economic woes, how to pull life-sustaining profits from our Web sites or otherwise save this struggling industry.

My focus is smaller: The simple ways that any reporter can make journalism better, including but not limited to Internet skills.