One Reporter's Notebook
Building Digital Beats

At the Online News Association Conference in San Francisco last week I was joined by Juana Summers and Chris Amico for a conversation titled “Beat Reporting for the Digital Age.” It is a subject I am passionate about because at heart I am a beat reporter.

My first real newsroom assignment was the education reporter at a small California daily: the Register Pajaronian. I loved getting to know everything I could about the schools I covered. Later, as a crime reporter at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, I fell in love with the crime beat. For me beat reporting offered a framework for my daily activities and my long term goals. It was a lens that helped me focus on what mattered to me, and what didn’t.

When I launched Homicide Watch DC, I launched the site not as an editor or publisher, but as a beat reporter. My earliest explanation of the site was that it contained everything a reporter would have in her notebook, on her desk, in her filing cabinet, while covering a case.  

The site has developed since then into what I now call a digital beat.

Homicide Watch DC certainly isn’t the only example of a digital beat out there. In our presentation in San Francisco we used such excellent examples as Politifact, Hero Complex, SchoolBook, Fivethirtyeight, Patchwork Nation, ClimateWatch and Planet Money. These examples highlight many of the traits of digital beats.

You’ll be able to watch the video of the presentation for a full review of why these sites work as digital beats, but I’ll recap the traits here:

Digital beats tend to be highly structured, audience-centric, and mission driven. They develop resources and are narrow in focus but cross-disciplinary in approach.

Digital beats use digital tools but are not necessarily defined by any one tool. We’re talking about beats that, in their conception, are Internet native, even though they may be, at their heart, very traditional. Sports. Education. Crime.

Finally, digital beats use tools, but not at the expense of narrative. Digital beats always tell a story. While they may be “shiny,” they are not gimmicky.

In the presentation I referenced Gideon Litchfield’s recent piece on beat reporting, titled “On Elephants, Obsessions and Wicked Problems: A New Phenomonology of News.”

He writes:

Online, however, trying to be the one comprehensive publication makes no sense. Readers can browse hundreds of news sites at no extra cost. That drives the sites to specialise. Yet most still structure themselves around fixed sections and beats. Slide your mouse across the navigation bar at the top of almost any news site, and there they are, the phantom limbs of the newspaper creatures of old. It hasn’t occurred to them that when there are no pages and sections to constrain you, you are free to reframe your description of reality too.

For me, digital beat reporting is about reframing our descriptions of reality. The examples above have shown us that it’s not only do-able, but that it creates a new kind of product, one that is purpose-driven, audience-aware, and resource-focused.

The question of course for many newsrooms (and beat reporters) is “how do I get to there?” I have three tips lists built out of my experience with Homicide Watch to answer that question. The first is a list of guiding principles, and the last two are sets of questions to ask yourself as you’re building a digital beat. I hope these are helpful. Good luck!

Key ideas behind data-driven beat reporting (frameworks for reporting):

  • Updates, even small ones, are cumulative, building on each other into a larger information resource.
  • Structure is important and is reinforced in each update.
  • There is a clear understanding from both reporters and audience of the beat’s organizing principles. It should be easy to articulate what gets covered and what doesn’t.
  • The goal is to build a resource.
  • Never make me guess: Basic information should be available when the user wants it, without having to dig through narrative work. It should be easy to get caught up.
  • Making your own data (from gathering or recombining from other sources) is better than filing FOIAs.
  • Streams are greater than stories.
  • It is easier to start with a narrow focus and pull ideas in than to begin overbroad and try to find focus later.

Checklists for Building a Digital Beat

First Tier (these questions help form your editorial focus):

  1. What is interesting about _____________?
  2. What do you want to know?
  3. Where are people getting their information (news and other types) about the subject now?
  4. Where do people talk about the subject now?
  5. Who cares about the subject and why?

Second Tier (these questions help form your tech focus):

  1. Where would this work? Describe the community (people), not location.
  2. What existing data (public or otherwise) is available?
  3. Who’s talking about this? How and where? What existing threads can I be a part of?
  4. What are all the parts involved? What are the units of coverage? (For example, homicides) What are the pivot points for the data?
  5. How can you get to 100% coverage?
  1. lauraamico posted this
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