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November 1, 2007

Beat Reporting With a Social Network: Can it Work?

Are there network effects in beat reporting? Across the US, a dozen reporters (with beats) are going to try to find out—simultaneously. This will improve their odds of succeeding. I'm still recruiting participants, so read on...

Below is a lightly revised version of a letter that went out last week to a number of professional news organizations—some big and famous, some small and unsung—asking if they want to participate. My goal is 12 willing beat reporters at 12 supportive newsrooms. I have about 7 to 8 of the 12 signed up now. This will be NewAssignment.Net’s third major project, after Assignment Zero and OffTheBus. You can email me or leave a comment if you wish to be involved.

(Nov. 15, an update. Part two of this post came two weeks later: These Beat Reporters Will Try the Social Network Way, announcing the participants and their beats.)

This is a simple project testing a single idea:

Maybe a beat reporter could do a way better job if there was a “live” social network connected to the beat, made up of people who know the territory the beat covers, and want the reporting on that beat to be better.

That’s the entire idea—so far. Beat reporting with a social network: can we get it to work?

This is probably best done on a blogging-style platform at an established news organization that can devote a pro reporter to work with a circle of “ams” or contributors from outside the newsroom. Thus, beat blogging with a social network is another name for the same idea. Bring knowledge, contacts and interests of many different people from around the beat into the production of news, views and information for the beat, by making use of social networking tools that lower the cost of collaboration and make it viable for dispersed groups to become an editorial force.

The tools for social networking are by now advanced enough that a live forum like that, nurtured by a clever reporter with flexible skills, could become the working heart of an online beat, which could then feed other platforms—the daily print edition, a weekly supplement or magazine, a podcasting schedule, a radio program.

Let’s figure out how it’s done! For that we need to do organized proof-of-concept work. But I have a way to keep the organization to a minimum. Twelve reporters (with supporting editors) in twelve editorial “shops” build the social network that makes sense for that beat— and for that shop. They design it. They run it. They fund it. They venture into it independently but simultaneously with others trying similar combinations.

Doing your own thing when eleven other newsrooms are doing the same thing their way raises substantially the odds of succeeding. But to get the benefits there has to be a forum—a common space—where networked beat reporters, with their editors, can compare notes, share problems, test tools, “fail well,” and of course watch how others do it, so as to get ideas for one’ self.

That’s NewAssignment.Net’s job: we’ll create the common space and make sure it works for the people whose by-lines and news brands are invested in these newfangled beats. We will also feed into the experiment the best thinking from outside professional newsrooms. I will share some of the ideas I have for how to approach beat blogging with a social network. While there may be advice, there is no consent. Participants run their beats their way.

As I announced at the Networked Journalism Summit in New York (Oct. 10) and the Online News Association in Toronto (Oct. 17-19) and the Journalism Leaders Forum in the UK (Oct. 16), I am pulling together a core group of practicing beat reporters to dive into this work, knowing there’s back-up available. My target number is twelve: twelve beats and twelve sites from across the editorial landscape. By “backup available” I mean….

The key participants and featured players in the experiment are obviously the individual reporters with beat responsibilities who want to give it a try. But the leadership of the news organization has to be in on the deal from the start and committed to trying a networked approach in one beat. In that sense the participants are the “shops” (a dozen newsrooms) that nominate a beat reporter for the project and create a home page where it lives online—a url for the beat.

There’s your minimum standard for participation. It’s five things: a reporter, a beat, a url for the new, networked beat home page, one supportive editor on the “web” or new media side, one supportive editor on the “news” side.

In addition to the reporters themselves, supervising editors are key participants because they have to be in on the larger scheme, fully understand it and support it with whatever resources are required. Same goes for the web division of the news organization: an active sponsor is needed.

Now for a more detailed FAQ:

Isn’t this what beat reporters already do?

Beat reporters have always had networks of sources, of course, but the sources haven’t been connected to one another, or able to self-publish; they haven’t been social networks at all. And we didn’t have the easy tools for Web-based collaboration that we have now, like group blogs, wikis, Facebook groups and so on.

To better understand the difference, take the Rolodex of a typical beat writer and imagine all the scattered but well connected people in it wired together. Pooling their knowledge for the good of the beat, they also get something from participating in its daily buzz; it’s river of news. We haven’t “always” had a reporting system like that.

From the reporting staff, who’s right for this project?

Reasonably Net-savvy. Committed to working in an interactive way but for the sake of real journalism. Open to doing things with different premises. They do not have to be “techies” in any sense, or citizen journalism evangelists. But they do have to believe that readers and listeners—amateurs—have a lot to contribute; they ought be interested in working closely with non-journalists to improve beat coverage.

Reporters chosen for the project should be able to handle a certain amount of uncertainty and fuzziness at the outset, since it’s not like we have a formula for doing this. It’s great to have people who are excited about learning new, social media skills, who want to be part of the solution for how journalism thrives on the open Web.

What kind of beats would work best?

Beats where it is relatively easy to identify the people “out there” who have hard won knowledge, an invaluable perspective or a network of their own, the kind of “assets” the reporter is likely to need to do a better job in covering the beat.

I picture a reporter in the Hampton Roads, VA area who is responsible for covering family life in the military for a sprawling region, with a lot of big bases. The reporter isn’t on those bases, or in the military. Getting an overview is hard because there are so many places where the story is happening.

But there are a lot of people around Hampton Roads with pieces of that story, who have built-up knowledge about it, vital glimpses into it, who might want to connect with other pieces, other glimpses, other people. They’re online and connectible. To some degree they’re already connected. What’s it going to take to get them to join your beat’s social network? What kind of contract—trust—emerges between reporter and network? These are some of the first questions participants in the project will have to answer.

Dan Gillmor, formerly of the San Jose Mercury News, put it as well as it can be put. “My readers know more than I do.” Beats where that statement is true and obvious to the reporter are probably the best.

Is there anyone doing anything like this now?

I’m sure there is. Here’s an interview with a columnist who runs an online forum at her site that is intimately related to her beat. The forum feeds the beat and helps her keep track of stuff she might otherwise miss. That’s the kernel of the approach I’m suggesting. Know of other examples? Spill.

What size social network is anticipated?

This is hard to say because I think the answer is going to vary a lot, but I was imagining a reporter starting with about 20-40 people as a core group, and seeing how that worked. That figure is really a guess. Your guess is as good.

In choosing participants for the reporter’s network, what sort of criteria should apply?

Obvious criteria. They should be people with the kind of knowledge, insight, experience, perspective or contacts that are likely to be valuable to the reporter, given the issues the beat visits. They should be diversely placed across the beat: from different institutions and levels of responsibility. (In education: administrators, teachers, parents, students, alums, board members, union officers, vendors, pols.) Get lots of points on the dial, but make it a tight dial in the sense of sharply defining what is “in” the beat, and outside it.

Participants should represent the different perspectives and stakeholders normally found in news coverage on the beat, and those not normally found but needed to round out, spread out and plain ol’ improve beat coverage. They should have diverse views and opinions while at the same time sharing a common “field” of newsy interest. They should be able to get along without fisticuffs. Some might fit the category of expert, but others might not. More important than formal credentials is: they know territory that is central to the beat. The system as a whole covers the waterfront.

Let’s say we decide to join up, and we have a reporter with a challenging beat, fully briefed and ready to give it a go… what happens then?

Your mileage may vary. I see these initial tasks in the first month or two:

1.) Pull together the network by picking the right people and asking 20-40 of those people to join as “friends of the beat;” includes figuring out what to say (what terms to offer) in the letter requesting their participation. It also means working on the give-get bargain: what do participants give, what do they get out of it? (See this post, “Grok their motivations and they may contribute.”)

2.) Decide on tools: the initial methods by which the reporter will convene the network, get it running, and communicate with it: blogging platform, mailing list, online discussion forum, wiki, Facebook group, weekly conference call, or some combination of forms.

3.) Come out with an adaptable home page (with a unique url) for the newly networked beat that displays the reporting, but also other fruits of the network, as well as other beat information. News feeds, aggregation, lists and calendars, weights and measures. The beat blogging with a social network home page must be a tool in motion—versions of it keep coming out.

4.) Run a few simple trials to test how well the network works in providing concrete assistance to the beat reporter in doing particular stories, investigation or news features. The sooner these small raids can start the better for the big battles later.

If we decide we’re in, what do we need to do?

First, you need to designate a reporter and a beat. Then I need a “we’re in” letter via email stating your willingnesss to participate, and a bit about why, how this fits into what you are doing. It should include three names, with their titles, email addresses and phone numbers. 1.) The beat reporter chosen and a short description of his or her beat; 2.) an editor on the new media, digital, interactive, online, or innovation side of the operation, who will support the work, and 3.) the editor with direct supervisory *

* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…, the compendium and switchboard site, launched Nov. 14, 2007.

Dave Winer at Scripting News: “Jay Rosen is onto something. Beat reporting and social networks of people who know the beat and want better reporting. Please help him if you can.” Thanks, Dave. Considering what he’s done, that’s an endorsement and a half.

Ryan Sholin at Invisible Inkling: “Plea: Jay Rosen has the beatblogging with a social network thing worked up pretty clearly at this point, but if the project doesn’t leave behind tools (a WordPress theme, a Drupal module, a useful set of forms — something more tangible than good ideas that other news organizations can use), it’s just twelve more reporters with a blog and a bunch of know-it-all commenters.”

Ryan then follows-up with a little more of an explanation:

I think it’s a great idea. It will work. Good stories will come out of the project.

And that’s where I get off the bus, because I’m hoping for something that goes beyond a “project.”

I want a hunk of code that professional or amateur journalists can use to build social networks around their beat.

That’s my reservation about the plan as it stands right now: Leaving the technical choices of how to get this job done up to news organizations seems like it leaves a major step unfinished.

For me, that step is leaving behind software that a news organization can use to build more social networks around beats.

I have yet to work in a newsroom where its technical needs were caught up to its philosophy. For example, it is much easier to convince editors that presenting information in databases online is a good idea than it is to actually code up an application to make it easy for reporters or online staff untrained in MySQL and PHP to do it.

Eric Eldon of in the comments: “I’m a reporter. I write for a tech blog. I already use social networks to get scoops. So do my competitors. This idea should work, in one form or another.”

Jemima Kiss at The Guardian’s digital content blog.

Much of the time the ideas and theories around online journalism and using new sites and tools stay just that - theories. We need far more projects to put these ideas into practice so this has to be a good move.

The basic idea is to join together a network of people with the same interests to communicate, share ideas and information and then work these stories together “through” the journalist. That’s pretty much what a lot of journalists do already (and arguably have always done), but social networking tools like Facebook et al allow these relationships and channels of communication to be formalized, and in turn this project formalizes that working process.

Mathew Ingram of the Globe and Mail: “My only reservations are that some sources may not want it known that they are sources, and reporters may not be comfortable opening up about how they do what they do. That said, I think it will be a fascinating experiment in Journalism 2.0.”

John Robinson, the blogging editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, reflects on the shrinking newspaper staff and what it can “cover.”

Do we do enough? No. Not even close.

How do you watch over things when the watchdog has to cover acres and acres of corruption and countless miscreants? Employ honest public servants? Well, that’s a start, and most of them are. But it only takes one.

Journalistic options:

Citizens? I like this social network idea by Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.Net.

Maybe a beat reporter could do a way better job if there was a “live” social network connected to the beat, made up of people who know the territory the beat covers, and want the reporting on that beat to be better.

It makes sense when you consider the potential of the two-way Web and the inevitable march of the thinking world online. We’re trying to pull together a proposal to participate.

Can it work? Dan Gillmor: “The answer is yes, I’m certain…”

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 1, 2007 11:31 AM